When it comes to terrorist plots, Britain has been lucky more than once.
In 2007, two car bombs planted in the West End of London failed to go off. Two militants linked to those bombs then drove an explosive-laden Jeep into Glasgow Airport the very next day, but again failed to kill anyone. A year later, a Muslim convert targeting a restaurant in Exeter prematurely detonated a suicide vest in the bathroom.
But last month’s synchronized attacks in Paris suggest that the days of jihadi ineptitude may be numbered.
Several of the Paris attackers, who had been to Syria and appeared to be well-trained, were among the approximately 30,000 foreign fighters from 100 countries who have joined the Islamic State over less than three years.
“Europe is far more vulnerable today than it was just a few years ago,” said Jytte Klausen, a professor at Brandeis University.
Her research shows that even before the rise of the Islamic State, about one in every 12 returning foreign fighters had plotted attacks at home.More significant, amid fears that Islamists are coming back to Europe, she found that plots were twice as likely to succeed when the perpetrators had spent time on jihadi battlefields.
Jihad is a source of networks, training and brutalization, said Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.
The last conflict to mobilize foreign fighters on a similar scale was in Afghanistan against the Soviets in the 1980s. Some 20,000 went. But that covered a whole decade, and the share of Westerners was much smaller.
Still, the Afghan jihad represented a chilling precursor: Veterans from that conflict have popped up on battlefields from Bosnia to Algeria to Iraq. They have been involved in establishing jihadi movements like al-Qaida and plotted against the West for the past two decades.
“It is no coincidence that Osama bin Laden began his terrorist career as a foreign fighter,” said Neumann, whose center has a database of about 700 Western jihadis in Syria. “All the big plots in Europe have involved people who have trained abroad. That’s why it’s so important to avoid the safe havens for training, because training makes them ‘better terrorists.”