The Role of the Individual in Shaping Government Security Responses

Over the past decade there have been numerous high-profile counter-terrorism operations leading to arrests, which have gained widespread media attention and attracted public concern. In a recent article for the RUSI Journal Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria point out that ‘since 2005 some ninety people have been convicted of significant terrorist offences’.[1] Indeed, the relative success of pre-emptive arrests has led to individuals entering a guilty plea in court due to the strength of the evidence against them. This suggests that the police and security service are becoming more adept and skilful at conducting counter-terrorist operations, especially those against organised networks where multiple individuals are involved. This success has, however, accompanied a certain degree of terrorism ‘fatigue’ in the media and public domain. With no successful attacks since the London bombings of 2005, we could be mistaken for feeling that there was a diminishing capable threat from Al-Qa’ida-inspired terrorism. But attacks do not need to be successful for them to have a direct impact; the young man who took the decision to blow up an airliner travelling to Detroit on Christmas Day not only bought into sharp focus that this was far from the truth, but also highlighted the increasing danger from the Al-Qa’ida-inspired ‘individual actor’. 

Unlike networked groups which tend to have a higher potential for detection by counter-terrorism forces due to their need for intra-group communications, physical meetings, and a wider network of people that could report suspicious behaviour, an individual working alone is more difficult to detect and can be more unpredictable in their actions.  From our first experience in 2001 of the infamous ‘Shoe Bomber’, Richard Reid, to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s alleged attempt to blow up a plane on route to the US, there are a number of cases during the past decade of individuals operating separately from a distinct network. Whilst it would seem that the UK is becoming more adept at successfully detecting and intercepting group terrorist plots, is there a danger that the terrorist attacks of ‘amateurish’ individuals could continue in years to come?

The Individual Actor

The outer-most ring of Al-Qa’ida influence, and perhaps the most difficult element of the terrorist activity to detect, is constituted of those that are acting independently of a group network or structure. These individuals are gaining their ability to build explosive devices as well as inculcation in the ideology predominantly from the Internet. Both in the US and UK there have been a number of recent incidents that point to an increase in activity of individuals acting alone but with significant influence from the Al-Qa’ida ideology. In the US examples abound from the last year alone: Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army doctor who stands accused of shooting and killing thirteen people and wounding thirty-one others at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009; Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan immigrant who was arrested in Denver in September 2009 for allegedly plotting terrorist attacks on US soil after receiving training in Pakistan; and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, who allegedly shot two soldiers, killing one and seriously wounding the other outside a military recruiting centre in Little Rock, Arkansas. All these incidences were operations that were intended to be conducted by individuals, and which predominantly took the authorities by surprise. This highlights the extent to which an individual working alone can use this surprise to conduct their operations.

These types of cases are of great concern to the UK government. The UK has already had two serious planned (though pre-empted or unsuccessful) terrorist plots led by individuals on the British mainland. Abdulmutallab’s alleged attack on a transatlantic flight in December 2009 has increased fears of more. 

Andrew Ibrahim

Andrew Ibrahim was arrested in April 2008 after a tip-off from the Imam of a local mosque in Bristol. He is the son of consultant pathologist and attended a highly regarded public school. At the time of his arrest he was not being tracked by MI5 or the police and it was only due to the tip-off that he was caught at all.  Ibrahim was charged with possessing hexamethylene triperoxide diamine (HMTD) – the same explosive used in the 7 July 2005 bombs – with intent to endanger life or cause serious injury to property under the Explosive Substances Act 1883. He was also accused of possessing two homemade explosive vests, a quantity of ball bearings, air gun pellets, nails and screws, wired circuitry, batteries and electric bulb for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism, under the Terrorism Act 2000.[2] In July 2009 he was convicted of the charges and sentenced to at least ten years’ imprisonment.[3]

Nicky Reilly

In May 2008, Nicky Reilly, a man suffering from Asperger syndrome (a form of autism) attempted to detonate a crude nail-bomb device in a popular children’s restaurant in Exeter. Reilly was described by people close to him as a ‘friendly giant’ obsessed with computers. It was through the use of his computer that he learned to build the bomb and via which, to a degree, his radicalisation took place. Fortunately the device misfired, injuring Reilly in the process but avoiding large scale loss of life. Reilly was arrested and charged under the Terrorism Act 2006, and gave testimony to the Old Bailey under his Muslim name, Mohammad Rashid Saeed-Alim. In January 2009 he was convicted to a minimum of eighteen years’ imprisonment.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, as has been widely publicised, is from a rich Nigerian family. He is highly educated, having attended private schools and then University College London (UCL) where be became head of the Islamic Society. At UCL he was highly active in organising anti-war activities during the time of the Iraq War. He was allegedly already using the Internet to both learn more about violent extremist Islamism and to propagate his own messages of hatred for what he saw as corrupt leadership in Saudi Arabia.[4] It is not certain if during visits to Yemen prior to his arrival at UCL he became interested in conducting violent operations or whether it was during his time at university that this occurred. However, it is certain that both Yemen and the radical cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, who had also been in contact with Nidal Hasan in the build-up to his attack at Fort Hood, played a significant role in Abdulmutallab’s radicalisation and the shaping of the actions he  stands accused of. The US National Security Agency intercepted communications between a phone allegedly used by Al-Awlaki and Abdulmutallab, and Al-Awlaki may also have been involved in other intercepted communications indicating that Al-Qa’ida was planning to use an unidentified ‘Nigerian’ in an attack over the holiday season.[5] The attempt to blow up Flight 253 to Detroit was intended to kill all 278 passengers and eleven crew aboard that day, and it is fortunate that the detonator was not successful in igniting the explosive material. In addition, the plane was below 30,000 ft meaning that if the bomb had gone off it may not have completely destroyed the plane or made it uncontrollable. Despite the failed detonation, however, the attempted attack has had vast repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic and could well provide inspiration for others to do the same.

The Individual’s Tool

There is no doubt that Al-Qa’ida’s core leadership still provides inspiration to a individuals around the world, and access to its material can be gained through electronic means. Networked terrorism becomes less sustainable as an operational method as governments’ proficiency in detecting it improves. However, the Internet still provides an ideal medium for influencing new recruits who are willing to conduct operations independently. It is no coincidence that Al-Qa’ida uses the Internet to propagate its ideology, post videos of suicide attacks, and communicate, as it offers a key mechanism with which to reach a mass audience:[6]

The Internet has become a key element in al-Qa’ida training, planning and logistics, and cyberspace [is] a legitimate field of battle. Some commentators have gone so far as to declare that al-Qa’ida is the first Web-directed guerrilla network.

Government Responses to Failed Terrorist Attacks

Under the current ‘terrorist cloud’, any serious attempted attack provokes a reaction from government, which is forced to immediately address the security problems at hand, and fill any apparent gaps in security mechanisms. Instant media and communications mean that any attack, successful or not, will receive coverage and gain world headlines, necessitating a decisive response from the government in order to reassure the public.  To a degree then, the power is in the hands of the would-be terrorist. If the attempt fails, but it highlights a weakness in the security system – be it of an airport or any other transportation hub – it will still have affected the way the public goes about their everyday life. Terrorism by its very nature is aimed at changing and inconveniencing our patterns of normality, and sowing fear of the unknown and unimaginable.

The first example after 9/11 of the ‘action/reaction’ phenomenon was in the wake of Richard Reid’s failed attempt to blow up a bomb concealed in his shoes on a transatlantic flight in December 2001, which led to passengers having to remove their shoes in order to pass them through scanning devices, creating large queues at airports and dismay from passengers. After the foiled ‘Bojinka II’ plot in 2006, whereby the attackers intended to use liquid explosives to blow up multiple flights to North America, subsequent limitations on liquids on aircraft were imposed, to the extent that passengers still cannot carry onboard any container with more than 100ml of liquid.

The underpants plot brings with it new constraints:[7]

Thanks a bunch, thunderpants. Umar Abdulmutallab’s botched attempt at roasting his Christmas Day chestnuts will now constipate our airports yet further with body scanners, sniffer-dogs and Perspex bins filled with confiscated boxer shorts.

Whilst the fact that Abdulmutallab is accused of hiding the explosive device in his underpants has become quite a joke for some, this is only because the attack failed. Despite underpants appearing to be quite a strange container for explosives, it was actually very clever in its simplicity. At the time there was no mechanism for detecting explosives that would be carried in such a sensitive area of the body; therefore it was one of the few places left to carry such a device. As a reaction to this methodology of concealment, governments in the US, UK and the Netherlands rapidly discussed the introduction of millimetre wave scanners, which can see through clothing, to try and counter the threat. These cost many millions of pounds and create further delays at airports. The possible violation of civil liberties has previously held up their widespread use; objections lodged with the EC remain unresolved. Furthermore, questions have been raised about the ability of such devices to detect the kind of device that Abdulmutallab stands accused of carrying.[8] However, these concerns were swept aside in order to demonstrate government action against a new threat.  Worryingly, an Al-Qa’ida operative, again from Yemen, attempted a suicide attack against Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef, the Saudi deputy interior minister, in August 2009 using a bomb allegedly concealed in his rectum, which if utilised in future attacks against aircraft would necessitate even more advanced detection technologies.[9]

US President Barack Obama described the Christmas airline incident as a ‘systemic failure’ and ‘totally unacceptable’. This has already led to a shake-up of how the various intelligence agencies in the US share and cross-reference intelligence information between them, along with tightening ‘no fly’ lists of individuals under suspicion of terrorist links.[10] Similarly Gordon Brown announced that an extension of UK ‘no fly’ lists would be imposed along with direct flights between Yemen and the UK being cancelled until concerns about their safety were addressed. 

The impact of world leaders responding to the actions of one individual demonstrates how powerful a lone actor can be, not only in highlighting frailties in counter-terrorism mechanisms, but also in creating a high profile for their cause. The political requirement to be seen to act in response to an attempted terrorist attack means that we are frequently reacting to events and attempting to play ‘catch-up’. The pattern of action and response is likely to continue, as terrorists innovate around the counter-terrorism technologies introduced after previous attacks. Similarly, the likelihood that incidences of individuals acting alone will increase as a theme of contemporary terrorist actions is extremely probable. Nevertheless, whilst we must be alert to the risks, it is incumbent upon us to treat the terrorist threat as a risk amongst many, creating prevention mechanisms that do not compromise our quality of life or our liberties.

Dr Tobias Feakin
Director, National Security and Resilience Department


[1] Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria, ‘Terrorism in the United Kingdom: Confirming its Modus Operandi’, RUSI Journal (Vol. 154, No. 3, June 2009), pp. 44-53.

[2] Duncan Gardham, ‘Bristol teenager Andrew Ibrahim charged with plotting terrorist bomb attack’, Telegraph, 29 April 2008. 

[3] Sean O’Neill, ‘Former public schoolboy Isa Ibrahim convicted of planning “carnage”’, Times Online, 18 July 2009. 

[4] Mark Hosenball, Michael Isikoff and Eva Thomas, ‘The Radicalization of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’, Newsweek, 2 January 2010, pp. 23-27.

[5] Hoesnball et al, op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[6] Abdel Bari Atwan, The Secret History of al Qaeda (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 122.

[7] Sam Leith, ‘Jihad is little more than just pants on fire’, London Evening Standard, 4 January 2010, p. 15.

[8] BBC News Online, ‘Airport body scanners “unlikely to foil al-Qaeda”’, 4 January 2010. 

[9] Dan Murphy, ‘What other Al Qaeda-linked attacks have involved Yemen?’, Christian Science Monitor, 29 December 2009. 

[10] Carrie Johnson, Karen DeYoung and Anne E Kornblut, ‘Obama vows to repair intelligence gaps behind Detroit airplane incident’, Washington Post, 30 December 2009.

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