Paris attacks underline significance of overseas training and direction


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Friday’s co-ordinated attacks in Paris demonstrate the hallmarks of major terrorist plots previously seen in the UK over the last 15 years combined with the unprecedented recruitment success of Islamic State.

HJS analysis of Islamism-inspired terrorism offences in the UK shows that foreign training or combat experience was a distinguishing feature of almost every major mass-casualty plot between 1999 and 2010. Seven of the eight major plots contained cell members who had either fought or trained abroad, bringing back both bomb-making expertise and weapons training. Many also received direction from al-Qaeda operatives or had returned from training camps in order to establish sleeper cells – and, mirroring events in Paris, 86% were also British nationals.

Islamic State (IS) has had huge successes in radicalising and recruiting fighters from Europe, who are able to travel to the group’s battlefields more easily than to any other previous jihadist conflict zone. With up to 450 fighters having returned to the UK, this country faces not only the often-discussed ‘lone wolf’ attacks, but the increased capability that trained individuals bring when executing the co-ordinated mass-casualty plots and attacks of their predecessors.

Islamic State Terror Plots in the West
HJS research, published this year, shows that IS has been increasingly inspiring and encouraging more terrorist plots targeting the West than ever before. Since IS declared its so-called ‘Caliphate’in July 2014, HJS has found that:

  • 32 plots have taken place up to August 2015, an average of 2.3 a month; across 10 separate countries and involved 58 individuals of 14 different nationalities;
  • Prior to Friday’s co-ordinated attacks only one plot, in Belgium in January 2015, had been directed by IS itself; while a further 16% of plots had seen IS fighters directly encourage individuals with whom they were in contact in the West to carry out attacks in their home country;
  • In 75% of IS plots in the West there was no proof of contact with the groups’ fighters or leaders – but their ideology and propaganda was integral to the scheme;
  • 97% of the perpetrators were men; 75% were aged under 25, including 17% teenagers. 29% were converts to Islam and 22% had prior contact with law enforcement (most commonly for drugs offences);
  • The most commonly targeted countries were the United States, France and Australia, with hand guns as the most commonly-used weapon.

Islamist Terrorism in the UK
HJS analysis of Islamism-inspired terrorism offences and attacks in the UK between 1999 and 2010 shows that one in five individuals involved had received prior training/combat experience abroad and that seven of the eight major terrorism bomb plots during this time contained individual cell members who had either fought or trained abroad.

  • 134 individuals had either been convicted of such offences or killed themselves in suicide attacks. Of these, almost one in five (19%, n=26/134) had attended foreign terrorist training camps and/or obtained combat experience abroad;
  • There were eight major terrorism bomb plots involving 37 individuals. Of these, 15, or 41%, had attended foreign terrorist training camps and/or obtained combat experience abroad;
  • Individuals with foreign terrorist training/combat experience were, therefore, much more prominent among the major Islamism-inspired terrorist offenders than they were among all Islamism-inspired terrorist offenders (41% and 19% respectively);
  • 96% of the perpetrators were men; 68% were aged under 30, including 8% teenagers. 15% were converts to Islam; 34% had direct links to a proscribed terrorist organisation; 6% had prior convictions and served prison time, for both terrorism- and non-terrorism-related offences;
  • Preliminary research updating this study to the end of 2015 suggests some significant changes: a doubling in the rate of terrorism-related offending since 2011; a higher prevalence of teenagers and women; and a significant increase – to as many as one in five – in prior convictions.

HJS’ Centre for Radicalisation and Terrorism is the leading UK think tank studying the threat of radical Islam across Europe.

Executive Director Alan Mendoza said: “It is essential that Western nations now rethink their military strategy towards Islamic State. We have fought ‎a phoney war to date and it has led to real casualties on European soil. We now need to redouble our efforts to expunge this scourge from the territory it holds. In Britain’s case, this will mean committing to military action in Syria, or risk becoming an international also-ran in terms of our influence.”

Deputy Director Davis Lewin said: “The absence of a terrorist attack on our own soil in recent years is not a function of the British Government exaggerating the threat, but rather of it taking it extremely seriously and putting the required resources in place to meet this defining challenge of our age. Now, the security services urgently require the updated surveillance laws currently before Parliament to keep up with the threat. We must also redouble our efforts to address robustly the culture of intolerance that spawns terrorism – asserting our values in the face of those who seek to equivocate and explain.”

HJS Homeland Security Research Fellow Hannah Stuart said: “Friday’s attacks resemble many of the major terrorist plots previously seen in the UK – a large cell carrying out co-ordinated ‘spectacular’ attacks, with individuals demonstrating clear military training and apparent overseas direction. This is not an evolution in IS’ ambition, but rather, in light of the high number of returning fighters, it shows the scale and lethality of exactly the kind of attack most feared by the British government and intelligence services.”


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