As she seeks to push through tough new terrorism legislation, Home Secretary Theresa May has reported an increased danger of terror attacks in the UK.
But May’s claim that 40 terrorist plots have been uncovered in the past nine years seems to put her at odds with Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who cited an average of one plot a year being uncovered as well as “several” in the past year.
Still, whether the number of foiled threats is 15 or 40, the government believes the overall danger of an attack is increasing. It is singularly determined to get new legislation through, including controls on universities to stop them allowing extremist speakers on campus – the definition of “extremist” being thoroughly unclear.
Part of the suspicion over the controversial new legislation, already dubbed the “snooper’s charter”, is the lack of public trust in the police, not least because of examples such as spying on the family of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence.
These might possibly be resolved during the debate on the new bill if the necessary assurances are offered – but the much more important issue is still the extent of the threat, and the question whether it is increasing. This, in turn, means focusing on the main movement involved: Islamic State (IS).
The early indications are that air strikes against this rapidly expanding threat have curtailed its operations, but more by preventing further gains rather than pushing fighters back onto the defensive.
Recent talk of a “spring offensive” by the Iraqi Army to regain Anwar Province from Islamic State control have been ridiculed in both Iraq and the US. It will take at least a year to reform and retrain Iraq’s armed forces. The reality is that the international coalition fighting IS will be unable to do more than secure a stalemate for some time.
Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, but the consensus is that IS has up to 15,000 paramilitary supporters from outside the region. Its total strength may be rather more than 30,000.
IS’s recent success in Syria has also seen other Islamist paramilitary groups such as al-Nusra Front start to collaborate. That said, this is hardly enough to put the movement back on track to create a substantial Caliphate – and still less to allow it to strike at some of its most hated enemies, such as the Saudi Royal Family or King Abdullah II of Jordan.
If IS is to successfully displace the al-Qaeda movement, it badly needs support from other major movements elsewhere in the world to accept its leadership. It’s certainly made progress on that score recently, especially with the powerful and extreme Egyptian Islamist group Ansar Beit al-Magdis pledging its allegiance in late November 2014.
Even more indicative has been the pervasive spread of the IS flag among extreme groups in Pakistan.
All this may well help recruit supporters from countries such as the UK, but two other factors may be even bigger: the extensive and highly effective use of new social media to spread the IS message, and the fallout from the Western military offensive.
The West’s push is reported to have killed more than 900 people, mostly IS paramilitaries but with civilians as well, including children. IS propagandists are having a field day with this, happily demonising the West once again killing Muslims and assaulting Islam as they have done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere.
It is a persuasive and pervasive message, with obvious appeal. Yet while Theresa May might well be right that the terror threat to the UK is increasing, there should be no disguising that this directly relates to fighting that distant war.
From IS’s perspective, the UK is attacking it, making the UK an entirely appropriate target for attack. But the question of what to do about that, and what legislation to pass to prevent it, is not any easier to answer just because the threat level has gone up.