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Manchester suicide bombing: Difficulty of stopping the lone wolf terrorists

How do you stop an extremist hell-bent on killing as many people as he can? Mark Andrews reports on the nature of modern terrorism.

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Armed police on patrol in the wake of the Manchester explosion

Again, a nation is shocked to its core by a terror atrocity that targets the innocent.

Again, a nation is confused and bemused about the apparent ease of attack.

And, yet again, a nation asks itself just how it can protect itself from such random acts of evil.

Greater Manchester Police officers were today continuing their investigation in to the attack on the Ariana Grande concert. Detectives will want to know if the attacker worked alone or was part of a wider cell.

Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon recently revealed that security services successfully foiled more than a dozen terror plots in the UK last year. But he also admitted that the country now faced a new type of low-tech, 'lone wolf' terrorist, which was much harder for the security services to detect.

While attacks such as the 7/7 attack on London's transport system in 2005 or the 2015 attack on Paris's Bataclan Arena involved several terrorists working together on a series of co-ordinated attacks, the early indications are that the Manchester attack was carried out by an individual suicide bomber carrying an improvised explosive device.

And although the British security services – and those in other Western countries – have a proven track record in thwarting organised attacks, it is much more difficult to prevent a lone terrorist acting on his own initiative using everyday domestic items. While the law prevents the sale of unlicensed guns, it is much harder to stop somebody carrying out an attack with a car, a kitchen knife or a bomb made made from components readily available from the hardware shop.

Police outside the Manchester Arena

Sir Michael says: “This kind of attack, this lone wolf attack, using things from daily life – a vehicle, a knife – is much more difficult to forestall.

“We are also dealing with a terrorist enemy that is not making demands or holding people hostage, but simply wants to kill as many people as possible – so this is a new element to international terrorism."

The investigation into Monday's explosion is still at an early stage, but it is understood that the bomber detonated his device, which used nuts and bolts as projectiles, from a public area outside the main arena. It is thought he would have visited the arena at an earlier stage to establish where he would have been able to cause maximum carnage without being subject to security. Short of putting all our major towns and cities under lockdown, it is difficult to stop somebody from carrying out such carnage.

Paul Gill, a lecturer in security and crime science at University College London, has worked with counter-terror experts in the US. He says the difficulty is that such acts are frighteningly easy to carry out.

Extreme Islamist websites have for years been urging readers to carry out whatever attacks they can, no matter how crude they may seem.

"At the very basic level, they are trying to effect some form of political change," says Mr Gill.

"Some perpetrators believe that this can only be achieved by killing as many people as possible.”

Mr Gill says that the prevention of such acts of terror, whether they involve driving vehicles into crowds, knife attacks or home-made bombs, is largely down to gathering intelligence about individuals.

His work included a study for the US Department of Homeland Security, in which 119 'lone wolf' terrorists were examined. Those he looked at were not restricted to those who carried out their attacks in the name of Islamism, but also those influenced by far-right ideology, and extreme views on abortion or the environment.

He says: “For 83 per cent of offenders, others were aware of the grievances that later spurred their terrorist plots or actions.

"In a similar number of cases, others were aware of the individual’s commitment to a specific extremist ideology.”

But he says that in many cases, there are other factors which may trigger the terrorists to act on their extreme ideology.

“One-third had have mental health problems and others had other stressors such as having lost their job," says Mr Gill.

"The ideology gives them a buffer from their other problems.”

Westminster attacker Khalid Masood

For example, Khalid Masood, who carried out the March attack on the Palace of Westminster, had a criminal record spanning some 20 years for matters unrelated to terrorism. He had also previously been investigated by MI5 on matter related to his extreme views. Masood, who had been born Adrian Elms before converting to Islam, was also reported to have experienced financial difficulties, as well as an addiction to scratchcards.

The 52-year-old drove a car he had hired into the crowds on Westminster Bridge before stabbing police officer Keith Palmer to death.

The difficulty is that, while it is often possible to identify potential terrorists, the sheer number of terrorists means it is not possible to monitor them all round the clock. For this reason, security agencies rank them according to the danger they are feared to pose and then deploy assets accordingly. The most dangerous will be monitored 24 hours a day.

Neil Basu, deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police and the senior national co-ordinator for counter-terrorism policing, said UK security services dealt with as many as 550 live cases at any one time.

One attempted plot, in 2015, was said to have been thwarted in the “in the final hours".

An operation run by GCHQ, the British intelligence and security organisation, used interception warrants to monitor phones owned by individuals linked to the 2015 plot, it was reported.

According to the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, agents were then able to identify and intercept a would-be terrorist cell that was close to carrying out its plan.

Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday summoned a meeting of the Cobra security council.

A similar meeting took place after the Westminster attack in March, where a "review" was carried out to ensure the police had all the resources they needed, including military back-up. It is not yet clear whether extra money will be made available in the wake of Monday's attack.

After the Westminster attack, Sir Michael revealed: “That is something we always review at the time.

“There have been increases in the budgets of the security services over the last few years. We will continue to keep that under review. The police and the security agencies will have the resources they need.”

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