RUSI JOURNAL: A ‘golden age of counter-terrorism’ – we’ve been both successful and lucky

UK jihadi terrorist cells are chiefly self-help groups consisting of untrained, or semi-trained, dangerous amateurs leading some police professionals to predict that this will seem like a golden age of counter-terrorism – when we were both successful and lucky; according to new research paper by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Charting a number of significant terrorist plots since 2001, the paper – published in a forthcoming edition of the RUSI Journal – analyses the ‘resolutely amateur’ tradecraft of UK jihadists, and concludes Al-Qa’ida ‘core’ is having less direct involvement in terrorist planning after increased NATO operations in Afghanistan, and the wave of arrests across Europe following the 2004 Madrid and 2005 London bombings.

‘Al-Qa’ida core still exists but has been territorially limited by increased western operations in Afghanistan since 2005 and along the border areas with Pakistan. It has suffered considerable losses in key personnel and may now be struggling to remain relevant in the jihadi movement...

What security services may now be combating is more home grown plotting with less direct Al-Qa’ida core planning since 2006, but still a good deal of inspiration from the camps in the lawless areas of Pakistan,’ the paper states.

'Terrorism in the United Kingdom: Confirming its Modus Operandi', written by Professor Michael Clarke and Valentina Soria, addresses the ‘extremely variable’ tradecraft of UK jihadi terrorists and the ‘surprising’ personal connectedness between plots and plotters that has emerged from cases over the last three years.

‘Intercept evidence shows that jihadists in the UK talk like terrorists operating in professional cell structures but do not normally act that way.’

According to the findings ‘face to face communication’ is ‘very prevalent’, not least because ‘UK cells are chiefly self-help groups and act both as recruiters as well as planners’.

‘For cells consisting of radicalised amateurs, constant social reinforcement is necessary, which also helps explain their predilection for outward bound training, even paint-balling sessions, which draws attention to their connections with each other and usually appears risible when used as prosecution evidence against them.

‘...most of the plotters have left a trail of forensics behind that has led some police professionals to predict that this will seem like a golden age of counter-terrorism – when we were both successful and lucky.

‘The tradecraft of UK jihadi terrorists is extremely variable. For the movement as a whole this is not a problem. Amateurs are as dangerous as professionals if they are lucky, and if there are enough amateurs plotting, some of them will be lucky. Those who are not keep the security services stretched and public anxieties high.’

While acknowledging that the security services should be ‘proud’ of their counter-terrorism efforts since the July 2005 London bombings – with around 90 convictions – the paper warns an evolution in the recruitment and techniques of terrorist cells is ‘entirely possible’ as they learn from previous mistakes.

‘Though it is theoretically possible to ‘learn how to make a bomb’ from the internet alone, it is generally regarded as not feasible unless there is some tangible training and /or knowledge of chemical handling among the bomb-makers.

‘The difficulties of making these devices work have prevented an unknown number of deaths and injuries in recent years.

‘This may not always be the case and an evolution in the recruitment and techniques of terrorist cells in the UK is entirely possible... The 90-odd convictions, of which the security services can be proud, will have their own longer-term consequences for which the government must be prepared.

The research – which also highlights the secure and insecure methods of communication used by UK jihadists, ranging from notebooks with invisible ink to ‘steganography’ (disguising messages inside the pixels of a picture or photograph that is emailed in the normal way) – follows the release of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee report into the 2005 London bombings last month and the House of Lords ruling on control orders earlier this week.


  1. For interview bids and further enquiries please contact Daniel Sherman +44 (0)20 7747 2617/
  2. Professor Michael Clarke is Director of RUSI and has acted as an expert witness in a number of terrorism cases since 2005.
  3. Valentina Soria is a researcher at RUSI and a doctoral candidate at the University of Reading.
  4. The Journal is the leading publication of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). Published six times a year, it is an internationally recognised authority on defence and security issues.

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