Piecing Together the Puzzle of a Potential Terrorist Plot

Scott Stewart, Vice President at TorchStone Global · Posted: November 2, 2020

There has been a lot of knee-jerk criticism of the British authorities in the wake of the Manchester and London Bridge attacks as it has emerged that in both cases, the lead assailants had been reported to the authorities and were therefore "known wolves."

It is easy to criticize what the British didn't do when one doesn't have access to the full picture. But before one can provide any meaningful criticism one must understand exactly what the British authorities have been doing to counter the threat they have been fighting. So personally, I will not blame the British for allowing these two to slip through the system until I have access to additional facts. For example, how many people of the 23,000 on their watch lists are they currently allocating their limited surveillance assets to? Who are the people they are surveilling and what level of terrorist tradecraft do they possess? What are their connections to terrorist groups? Are these people who possess the capability to conduct more than a simple attack?

In my experience of working with British investigators, intelligence officers and soldiers, I have found them to be very professional and proficient. Working with them is quite different from working with third world services. Based upon this experience, I am prepared to give the British the benefit of the doubt because I simply don't have access to the information required to pass an informed judgment on what they have been doing - nor do most of those I see criticizing them.

I’d also like to pass along something I wrote for Stratfor's Threat Lens clients that examines the difficulty of assessing the threat one individual poses out of thousands of potential threats. In the past I have likened the threat assessment process to a shark attempting to identify one specific fish within a massive, moving shoal of baitfish. Here, I use the analogy of assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

Piecing Together the Puzzle of a Potential Terrorist Plot

It has become normal in the wake of a terrorist attack to hear the suspect had previously been brought to the attention of the authorities, and indeed that is proving to be the case in the recent London Bridge-Borough Market attack. Reports have emerged that at least one of the three attackers involved had been reported to the police on at least two separate occasions as a potential terrorist. He had also been kicked out of his mosque for his radical beliefs and had even been featured in a documentary that appeared on Channel 4 television about British jihadists.

In hindsight it is quite easy to assemble these facts and see this man posed a threat. But investigators must be able to see these things coming -- and they have precious little to go on. Here is a primer on the puzzle they must piece together -- thousands of times over.

The puzzle

But things are quite different before an attack. We liken the process of attempting to assess the threat to putting together a jigsaw puzzle -- except investigators and analysts are looking at the pieces without a photo of the finished product for reference. The puzzle they are attempting to complete is: Will subject A progress from radical beliefs (which in themselves are legal) to illegal terrorist activity? Then they need to attempt to figure out what type of attack it will be -- knife, vehicular assault, bombing, armed assault, etc. -- and whether the subject is likely to act alone or in concert with others.

This might not be difficult if Subject A were viewed in isolation. In the real world, though, this is usually not the case. Indeed, we know that in the United Kingdom the authorities are reportedly puzzling over 23,000 such cases -- 3,000 of them deemed urgent threats. Attempting to assess which of these individuals will progress from radical belief to illegal action is like dumping the pieces of 23,000 puzzles together in one pile, without no complete pictures for a guide.

From this mass -- and mess -- of evidence and data points, the authorities are expected to correctly assess the threat posed by each of these known individuals and then assign the appropriate governmental resources to counter or mitigate the threat each of these individuals is believed to present the public. Remember also that the government simply does not have the resources to fully monitor each and every one of the potential threats on a 24/7 basis.

The London attack -- like others before it in the United Kingdom, France, the United States and elsewhere -- demonstrates the difficulty of correctly assessing the intent of each of these individuals to progress from thought to action. It is also important to remember that many if not most of the steps in the attack cycle are not necessarily illegal in and of themselves -- say, renting a van or buying a butcher knife. Many of these attackers have also been native-born or citizens, and in those cases deportation is simply not an option.

And as if it is not tough enough to assess the intent of an individual at a given point in time, analysts, behavioral psychologists and investigators must also re-assess subjects over time as their ideology possibly evolves. Are they becoming more radical or more mainstream? These shifts in ideology might impact their intent to act. Or they might not.

Authorities in the United Kingdom and elsewhere do disrupt many potential plots, but it is impossible to stop them all. That said, each attack provides important lessons that can be used to improve future threat assessments and helps refine the profiles of those who are more likely to progress from radical thought to illegal activity. This provides the puzzlers with a slightly better picture to draw on.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.

This analysis was originally pubished on June 07, 2017 and is republished with the permission of the author.

Scott Stewart is Vice President at TorchStone Global.


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