By Paul Cruickshank, CNN Terrorism Analyst
The threat posed by al Qaeda in the UK has lessened, but the future Olympic Games in London and the UK’s radicalization problems are still key security concerns, according to a report released by the UK government Tuesday.
The report comes a day after the UK terrorist threat level was lowered from “severe” to “substantial” - meaning that a terrorist attack is now a “strong possibility” rather than “highly likely.”
The Home Office document - an updated strategy for countering terrorism and the threat faced by the UK - suggested that increased pressure on al Qaeda in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region and the death of Osama bin Laden were linked to the reduction in the threat level to the UK.
“The operational capability of Al Qa’ida’s leadership is now less than at any time since 11 September 2001. Many have been killed, captured, or dispersed. Communications, training and planning have been significantly disrupted,” the UK Home Office document stated. (See the full government report)
“The death of Usama bin Laden on 2 May 2011 is a significant blow against Al Qa’ida. It has further disrupted Al Qa’ida operations and decision making and will leave a gap which it will not be possible for the Al Qa’ida leadership to effectively fill.”
A backlash against al Qaeda’s violent tactics in the Muslim world and the Arab Spring democracy movement also lowered the number of potential recruits for the terrorist organization, according to the UK government report.
The Home Office document identified the 2012 London Olympics as a key security concern and outlined preparations for what it called the largest ever peacetime security operation in British history.
“Terrorism poses the greatest security threat to the Games,” the report stated.
The document said that despite the improvement in the threat environment, the UK still “faces a significant threat from Al Qa’ida, its affiliates, associated groups and terrorists acting on their own - so called lone-wolves.”
The document stated that UK residents were among hundreds of European militants currently training or linked to jihadist groups in Pakistan and that al Qaeda operatives there had continued to try to send operatives back into Western countries.
For much of the period after 9/11, “the greatest threat to the UK has come from terrorist groups based in Pakistan,” the report stated.
Western militants trained or directed by Pakistani jihadist groups have been responsible for 53% of serious terrorist plots against the West since 2004, according to a new study I authored, published by the New America Foundation last week.
Other destinations for jihad are creating increased concern. “The threat to UK interests from terrorists in Yemen and Somalia has significantly increased. People from the UK are also travelling to these countries to engage in terrorist related activity; some are returning to the UK to plan and conduct terrorist operations,” the Home Office document stated.
The new counterterrorism strategy document singled out al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, as a growing threat to UK national security. (Related: Al Qaeda advances in Yemen’s hidden war)
“The breakdown of law and order in parts of Yemen and the departure to Saudi Arabia of President Saleh on 4 June 2011 enabled AQAP to seize territory and weapons from the Yemeni armed forces. The death of Usama bin Laden has made no difference to AQAP’s operational capability: its internal and external operations have not been closely coordinated with the Al Qa’ida leadership, “ the document stated.
In addition, the Home Office judged that the Somali militant group al Shabaab may formally affiliate itself with al Qaeda.
“Shabaab have adopted the global jihadist ideology associated with Al Qa’ida and have attracted hundreds of foreign fighters, including people from the UK,” the document stated.
The UK government also indicated that there was a growing risk of “lone-wolf” attacks on the country.
“Al Qa’ida and some Al Qa’ida affiliates have increasingly encouraged acts of terrorism by individuals or small groups independent of the Al Qa’ida chain of command and without reference to, or guidance and instruction from, the leadership. The internet has enabled this type of terrorism by providing material which encourages and guides radicalisation and instructions on how to plan and conduct operations,” the document stated.
The Home Office document made clear that the UK still had one of the most significant radicalization problems in Europe.
“Significantly more people were arrested in France and the UK for Islamist terrorist offences than in any other country,” the document stated.
However, the Home Office revealed that the number of arrests on suspicion of international terrorism in the UK in 2010 (76 arrests) was about 50% lower than in 2009 (155 arrests), indicating some progress in combating violent Islamist extremism in the UK.
The Home Office document sounded an alarm over new technologies being used by al Qaeda for operational planning, stating that software to encrypt mobile phone and Internet communications had become widely available and was improving.
“Cloud computing offers new, potentially more robust means for storing, sharing and distributing material online. It can be encrypted and configured to work with new generation mobile devices, leaving little or no trace of the data behind,” the document stated.
The concerns about such technologies follow a number of cases in which Western-based jihadists were able to communicate with terrorist handlers overseas without being detected. For example, in the UK trial of UK-based AQAP operative Rajib Karim earlier this year, it emerged that he had been able to communicate over the Internet without being detected with the radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki in Yemen by using sophisticated layers of encryption.
The document stated that social media was playing an increasingly prominent role in radicalization.
“There have been a number of attempts by terrorist and extremist groups to ‘invade’ Facebook. Twitter will be used to repost media or forum articles enabling extremist content to be shared more quickly, widely and amongst people who would not normally search for extremist content,” the document stated.
The document also made several predictions of how the threat of al Qaeda terrorism might evolve in future years.
Some of these were:
• The death of bin Laden would further damage the operational capability of al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan and make it more difficult for the terrorist organization to plan attacks.
• Al Qaeda will try to exploit the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan.
• Al Qaeda affiliates may continue to grow and will all aspire to attack Western targets.
• A wider range of al Qaeda-inspired terrorist networks, groups and unaffiliated individuals will collaborate to launch attacks against the West, sharing resources and capabilities.
• The ideology that has come to be associated with al Qaeda will be more resilient than al Qaeda itself.
• Al Qaeda and other groups will maintain their long-term interest in using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear materials.