This is the 3rd article in my short series trying to figure out the level of terrorist danger ISIS poses in the UK, again comparing them with the IRA in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’. (ISIS = Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. IRA = Irish Republican Army). I don’t predict the level it will actually get to, which depends on too many factors, only the limits if everything goes their way.
https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/isis-comparison-with-the-ira-conflict/ discussed the key difference, that ISIS is a religious group and the IRA was a nationalist one.
https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/25/a-pc-roost-for-terrorist-chickens/ then discusses the increased vulnerability in the UK now thanks to ongoing political correctness.
Wikipedia says: The Provisional IRA’s armed campaign, primarily in Northern Ireland but also in England and mainland Europe, caused the deaths of approximately 1,800 people. The dead included around 1,100 members of the British security forces, and about 640 civilians.
It also gives a plausible estimate of the number of its members :
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was estimated that in the late 1980s the IRA had roughly 300 members in Active Service Units and about another 450 serving in supporting roles [such as “policing” nationalist areas, intelligence gathering, and hiding weapons.]
Sinn Fein, (which was often called the IRA’s ‘political wing’) managed to get 43% support from the nationalist community at its peak in 1981 after the hunger strikes. Provisional IRA approval ratings sat at around 30%. Supporting violence is not the same as supporting use of political means – some want to fight for a cause but won’t do so using violence. That 30% yields an IRA supporter population of around 75,000 from 245,000 nationalist voters. So, from a supporter population of 75,000, only 300 were in IRA active service units and 450 in supporting roles at any particular time, although thousands were involved over the whole troubles. That is a total of only 1% of the relevant population from which they were drawn – those who supported violent campaigns. Only 0.4% were in active service units, i.e actual terrorists. That is an encouragingly small percentage.
Government estimate of the number of young men from the UK that went overseas to fight with ISIS is around 500. According to a former head of MI6, 300 have returned already. Some of those will be a problem and some will have lost sympathy with the cause, just as some men joined the IRA and later left, all the way through the troubles. Some will not have gone overseas and therefore can’t be identified and tracked the same way. Over time, ISIS will attempt to recruit more to the cause, and some will drop out. I can’t find official estimates of numbers but there are ways of making such estimates.
Building on Paddy Ashdown’s analogy with the IRA, the same kinds of young men will join ISIS as those who joined the IRA – those with no hope of status or fame or glory from their normal lives who want to be respected and be seen as heroic rebel fighters by holding a weapon, who are easy prey for charismatic leaders with exciting recruitment campaigns. The UK Muslim young men community faces high unemployment.
ISIS draws its support from the non-peace-loving minority of the Muslim community. Citing Wikipedia again, a Pew Research Centre poll showed 72% of Muslims worldwide said violence against civilians is never justified, surprisingly similar to the equivalent 70% found in the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland. They also found in the US and UK that over 1 in 4 Muslims think suicide bombing is sometimes justified, not very different from the world-wide level. (A 2006 survey by NOP found that only 9% of UK Muslims supported violence. Whether attitudes have changed or it is just the way questions are asked is anyone’s guess; for now, I’ll run with both, the calculations are easy.
The 25-30% figures are similar to the situation in Northern Ireland in spite of quite different causes. I lived a third of my life in Belfast and I don’t think the people there generally are any less civilized than people here in England. Maybe it’s just human nature that when faced with a common grievance, 25-30% of us will consider that violence is somewhat acceptable against civilians and support a sub-population of 0.4% terrorists fighting on our behalf.
On the other hand, the vast majority of 70%+ of us are peace-loving. A glass half full or half empty, take your pick.
The UK Muslim community is around 3 million, similar to the USA in fact. 28% of that yields a potential supporter population of 840,000. The potential terrorist 1% of that is 8,400 and 0.4% is 3,360. If we’re optimistic and take NOP’s 2006 figure of 9% supporting violence, then 270,000 people would be supporting 1080 terrorists if the right terrorist group were to appear in the right circumstances with the right cause and the right leaders and good marketing and were to succeed in its campaigning. That puts an upper limit for extreme Islamist terrorism in the UK at between 3 and 11 times as big as the IRA was at its peak if everything goes its way.
However, neither is the actual number of UK ISIS terrorists, only the potential number of terrorists available if the cause/motivation is right, if the community buys into it, if the ISIS leaders are charismatic, and if they do their marketing well in their catchment communities. So far, 500 have emerged and actually gone off to fight with ISIS, 300 have returned. We don’t know how many stayed here or are only thinking of joining up, or aren’t even thinking of it but might, and we don’t know what will happen that might aggravate the situation and increase recruitment. We don’t know how many will try to come here that aren’t from the UK. There are plenty of ‘known unknowns’.
Some of the known unknowns are good ones though – it isn’t all scary. In the Middle East, ISIS has clear objectives and controls cities, arms and finance. They say they want to cause problems here too, but they’re a bit busy right now, they don’t have a clear battle to fight here, and most of all our Muslim community doesn’t want to be the source of large scale terrorism so isn’t likely to be cooperative with such an extremist and barbaric group as ISIS. Their particular style of barbarism and particularly extremist views are likely to put off many who might consider supporting another extremist Islamist group. There also isn’t an easy supply of weapons here. All these work in our favor and will dampen ISIS efforts.
So the magnitude of the problem will come down to the relative efforts of our security forces, the efforts of the peace-loving Muslim majority to prevent young men being drawn towards extremism, and the success of ISIS marketing and recruitment. We do know that we do not want 3,360 home-grown ISIS terrorists wandering around the UK, or a similar number in the USA.
Finally, there are two sides to every conflict. ISIS terrorism would likely lead to opposing paramilitary groups. As far as their potential support base goes, ‘Far right’ parties add up to about 2%, about 1.25 million, but I would guess that a much higher proportion of an extremist group supports violence than the general population, so some hand-waving suggests that a similarly sized opposition supporter population terrorist group is not unlikely. We know from elsewhere in Ireland and other EU countries that that 2% could grow to the 25-30% we saw earlier if our government really loses control. In the USA, the catchment group on the ISIS side is still only the same size as the UK, but the potential armed resistance to them is far greater.
In summary, ISIS is potentially a big problem, with 300 home grown potential ISIS terrorists already here in the UK and trained, hundreds being trained overseas and an unknown quantity not yet on the radar. If all goes badly, that could grow to between 1000 and over 3000 active terrorists, compared to the IRA which typically only had 300 active terrorists at a time. Some recent trends have made us much more vulnerable, but there are also many other that lean against ISIS success.
I have a lot of confidence in our intelligence and security forces, who have already prevented a great many potential terrorist acts. The potential magnitude of the problem will keep them well-motivated for quite a while. There is a lot at stake, and ISIS must not get UK terrorism off the ground.