TSC IntelBrief: Heightened Fears of Islamic State Attacks
October 20, 2017

Heightened Fears of Islamic State Attacks


Bottom Line Up Front

• On October 17, the chief of Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence service stated the terror threat to the country was at a ‘scale and pace we’ve not seen before’.

• While Britain has suffered four successful attacks in 2017, MI5 has thwarted 20 more, including seven in the past seven months.

• British officials will add extra security to outdoor Christmas markets to deter truck attacks similar to those seen in Nice and Berlin.

• It remains unclear how or if the fall of Raqqa will affect terror attacks both directed or inspired by the so-called Islamic State.


On October 17, Andrew Parker, Director-General of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5, stated publicly that the terror threat inside Britain was ‘at the highest tempo’ he had seen in his 34-year career. 2017 has already seen four serious terrorist attacks in Britain that killed 36 people and left many more injured. The ongoing threat was further described by Director-General Parker as ‘multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.’

The terrorist threat facing Britain and the West includes externally directed and planned plots along the lines of the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks, claimed by the so-called Islamic State, which were large-scale both in scope and ambition. Intelligence agencies focus a great deal of their energy on detecting these larger plots — they tend to be more destructive and more detectable than small-scale attacks, and modern counterterrorism strategies are built for these types of plots and actors.  

However, so-called ‘inspired’ attacks — like others associated with the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and some far-right or white-supremacist groups — have lately been more prevalent. These ‘inspired’ attacks are plotted in the barest sense of the word; often starting with one person’s online interest and support for extremist ideology — an activity that’s generally legal and often detectable by police, only in hindsight. Even when the number of fatalities are relatively small, as in the 2017 vehicular and knife attacks on the London Bridge and Westminster,  they may add a whole new level of low-grade persistent fear to everyday life in a city. 

Vehicular attacks, especially those using trucks, are of particular concern as the Christmas holiday season approaches. The December 2016 truck attack at a Berlin Christmas market killed 12 people and wounded 56 more. The March 2016 Bastille Day truck attack killed 86 people and wounded another 458. Officials in Britain are concerned they may face similar attacks; with many potential targets requiring some level of protection. Long straight avenues such as the Promenade des Anglais, where the Nice attack was staged, should be blocked by bollards or other barriers that can keep unauthorized vehicles from entering. While establishing a so-called ‘Ring of Steel’ around outdoor holiday locations has also been discussed, security can often be managed with smaller countermeasures. 

No one knows if the fall of Raqqa will trigger a wave of attacks either directed or inspired by the Islamic State. Sleeper cells waiting in place and ready to act on command are more a Hollywood fantasy than reality. The loss of Raqqa may spur ‘revenge’ attacks from Islamic State supporters; though officials in Britain and across the West continue to operate at a high tempo as they identify and prioritize suspected violent extremists, focusing on new potential threats as they emerge. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to experience mass shootings at unprecedented rates that exceed the very real terror threat from the Islamic State and other groups. The upcoming holiday season will be a sustained challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies across the West.

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