As spies have become more sophisticated, terrorists have had to find new ways to terrorise people.
The public has been surprised to discover the extent to which they are spied on by their own governments. But according to Dr Gordon Woo at RMS - mass surveillance works. The information that is collected by agencies including the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK has prevented well organised attacks like those on the World Trade Center in 2001.
"The intelligence services essentially hoover up terabytes of traffic on the internet and monitor metadata on telephone calls," says Woo. "It only came to the public light with the revelations of Edward Snowdon, the ex-CIA whistleblower, who disclosed to everyone in 2013 that this mass surveillance was going on."
"It is this mass surveillance that is the primary reason why the number of successful terrorist attacks since 9/11 have been so few."
While it is very likely an ambitious plot will be foiled, attacks involving fewer people are more likely to go undetected. In the last six months examples of small scale attacks have included the shooting at the Canadian war memorial in Ottawa, the stabbing of New York police officers, the hostage taking in a Sydney cafe, the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris and last month's gun attacks in Copenhagen. Despite the human cost, property damage has been minimal.
"If you have a lone wolf plot the chance of this being stopped through intelligence is quite small, only around a quarter, but if you have a plot that involves ten people the chance of this plot being interdicted rises to 95%," explains Woo.
Because attacks involving several individuals are more likely to be intercepted, organisations such as the Islamic State, are actively encouraging their followers to wage smaller scale attacks. These are more likely to slip through the surveillance net, according to Woo.
"Many insurers think terrorists only go after high-profile targets like the World Trade Center where they are aiming for huge numbers of casualties, whereas in fact what we are seeing is this shift towards attacks using fewer guys."
It seems likely that the security services will have to remain vigilant some time. An estimated 8,500 foreign fighters are now involved in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, with a growing number from countries like France and the UK. Many of these people will pose a threat to the West for decades to come.
Next week we will interview Lloyd Dixon from RAND on the implications of the latest extension to the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act.
Posted: Monday, March 16th, 2015