A Book Review by Joe Whittaker
It is often said that online terrorism research has a data problem. While there is a sizable empirical literature into the “supply” of extremist content, such as propaganda videos, social media analyses, or jihadist magazines, we still know very little about how actual terrorists act. This data problem is, in large part, created because there is often little access to court data in many countries, with the US being a notable exception.
Therefore, when Lizzie Dearden, the Home Affairs Editor for The Independent, who has covered and reported on dozens of incidents of terrorism in the UK, writes a book outlining the 37 foiled attacks from 2017-2022, one should sit up and take notice as it will be a treasure trove of valuable information.
It is important to not merely focus on the high-profile successful attacks. For one, the sample size will naturally be smaller (by Dearden’s calculation there have been 15 successful attacks in the same timeframe), leading us to infer conclusions from less data. Moreover, the comparison between successful and unsuccessful plotters can offer a key perspective on whether there are demarcating factors between the two. Structuring the book from how close the plots were to completion from plans that were Nipped in the Bud early to Narrow Escapes, Dearden takes the reader on a journey of around three dozen plots while integrating expert testimony from key figures within the UK, such as the Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, The Commissioner for Countering Extremism, high-ranking law enforcement, and researchers.
A common theme that runs throughout the book is that contemporary terrorism has become reliant on the Internet. She highlights the enduring influence of Anwar al-Awlaki, who still, more than a decade after his assassination, was the first point of propaganda for many ISIS-inspired plots. Similarly, several individuals took influence from James Mason’s Siege which took on a new life within far-right online ecosystems. Dearden not only explains and analyses this propaganda in a sophisticated way but guides the reader through how the terrorists accessed it and built upon it to form their worldviews. Similarly, there are several instances of the Internet being used to plan and coordinate attacks, such as Ethan Sables searching “how to make an IED” and “how to make a pipe bomb”, or Lloyd Gunton taking to Google Maps to scope out Cardiff Castle in preparation for an attack.
However, as often needs to be noted when discussing terrorists’ use of the Internet, it would be foolhardy to relegate the importance of the offline domain in radicalisation and attack planning. The cases outlined in Plotters demonstrates that while the Internet has become important, individuals tend to act in both domains, supporting existing research on this topic. Dearden outlines the case of Lewis Ludlow, part of the al-Muhajiroun network and a regular at their protests. At the same time, he was engaging in pro-ISIS channels on Telegram while using Internet cafés to research potential targets, before eventually carrying out physical reconnaissance on Oxford Street in London. Or take Sahayb Abu who had a network consisting of a family that included, in the police’s words, “an extraordinary number of jihadists.” When he was not putting up propaganda posters in the streets of Ilford, he was reading jihadist magazines and posting in ISIS Telegram chats. In fact, Abu used his extensive family connections as credentials to gain access to the chat. These cases demonstrate the extent to which the online and offline domains are interrelated and inseparable.
While Plotters highlights the Internet as a place which as removed the traditional barriers for terrorists, Dearden also highlights its utility for law enforcement. One important way in which she does this is emphasising how the British security services are reliant on undercover agents. This is well-publicised within the US, given that court documents detail the extent of their involvement. However, in countries where such documentation is not available, like the UK, documents such as Plotters helps to elucidate how they are used. The Internet is often the place in which these law enforcement operations often begin. For example, Dearden details cases such as that of Haroon Syed, who believed he was making preparations for an attack in Central London on the messaging app Threema but was instead speaking to a character played by multiple members of the security services over a period of five months. Or take neo-Nazi Paul Dunleavy, who sought to join the proscribed terrorist Feuerkrieg Division on Telegram, but unbeknownst to him, a member of the group was an undercover police officer. While there has never been any doubt that security services engage in such activities, having it laid out in such detail is a rare occurrence within the UK context.
As well as undercover stings, Dearden also highlights ways in which would-be terrorists telegraph their activities and give the game away. For example, the two individuals discussed above that took to the Internet to plan their activity – Lloyd Gunton and Ethan Stables – also signposted their activity in advance on social media. Gunton asked his Instagram followers “Cardiff, are you ready for our terror?” while Stables planned to attack a pride night at a local pub first posted his intentions in a Facebook group. This type of activity gets to the heart of a key debate within the academic literature – questioning whether content removal ought to be the primary method of countering extremism online given that many would-be terrorists are leaving low-hanging fruit for security services.
Dearden concludes Plotters by thinking about the future, confidently predicting that “the plots of the future will be dominantly driven by online radicalisation” not least because terrorists are learning to adapt to the risks of offline detection. This seems to be a relatively robust prediction, particularly given the way in which online terrorist ecosystems have become more resilient than ever before. However, despite the meteoric rise to ubiquity of the Internet over the last three decades, we are still seeing few plots that are driven exclusively online. If Dearden’s prediction is correct, it will represent a paradigm shift in this field of research.
Joe Whittaker a Lecturer in Cyber Threats at Swansea University.