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Plotters by Lizzie Dearden review – the terrorists who failed | Books

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Journalist Lizzie Dearden has been covering terrorism and extremism for about a decade. In her first book, Plotters, she looks at a series of botched terrorist attacks in the UK between 2017 and 2022, examining the attackers’ motivations and the reasons they failed. Sometimes it was down to luck: one would-be perpetrator got waylaid by a malfunctioning satnav; another mistakenly equipped his homemade bomb with acetone-free nail polish remover instead of the regular stuff, rendering it harmless. Often it was a matter of an indiscreet boast to a friend, who then tipped off the police. Surveillance by the security services, whose undercover agents infiltrate online extremist networks by posing as fixers or sympathisers, proved critical in several cases.

As Dearden explains, these agents have to tread delicately: they must gain a suspect’s trust without actively egging them on – because entrapment would probably scupper any eventual prosecution; and they have to discern “the difference between online boasting, genuine intent and actual capability”. She speculates that the banning of far-right groups under anti-terrorism legislation – as happened with National Action in 2016 – may, in the long run, make this information-gathering work more difficult, forcing extremists to meet offline to avoid detection: “If terrorists move completely away from … formal or informal online groups, the loss of intelligence could be catastrophic.”

Plotters gives a useful overview of the demographic and ideological composition of the current terrorist threat. Islamists account for around half of all plots since 2017, with neo-Nazis comprising roughly one-fifth. A third category, of people whose ideology is “mixed, unstable or unclear”, is growing: one of the would-be attackers in this book was found to be primarily driven by an intense hatred of the people of Workington. Dearden writes that “teenagers and people with autism and mental health issues are taking up an increasing proportion of suspects prosecuted for terror offences”, with police attributing this variously to the ease of accessing terrorist propaganda online, the enforced isolation of the pandemic and a falling away of local support services. Looking to the future, she identifies a number of challenges for the security services: the potential threat posed by convicted terrorists who have served their time and are up for release; the networking that takes place in prisons, where radicalised individuals are able to intermingle; and the incubation of far-right hatred within online gaming communities.

This is, of course, a serious book, but it is also darkly funny in places. The plotters have a handy penchant for writing self-incriminating to-do lists. One aspiring jihadist incited followers on his Telegram channel to target the royal family by poisoning the ice-creams in the Windsors’ nearest Sainsbury’s. While plotting to plough a van into a crowd of people, Islamic State supporter Lewis Ludlow confessed to a friend that he had never learned to drive and was “a bit scared of crashing”. Another, Sahayb Abu, told police his IS flag and balaclava were merely part of a costume for his rap music alter ego, “the Masked Menace”, and the only reason he’d acquired a very sharp sword was that he “enjoyed YouTube videos of people cutting everyday objects, like paper and carpets”.

The plotters’ online search histories offer revealing insights into their psychological trajectories. The pathology of teenager Lloyd Gunton, who planned an attack on Cardiff after researching the security at a Justin Bieber concert, appears to have started with a macabre interest in suicide; this morphed into an obsession with gory violence, which in turn led him to become fixated with IS. Whatever their ideological persuasions, the individuals profiled here have some personality traits in common: social isolation, arrested development, a certain desperate credulousness. Unconvincing facial hair, pertinently suggestive of frustrated masculinity, is another running theme – we encounter beards that are variously “wispy”, “straggly” and “patchy”. In other circumstances they might have been deserving of sympathy, but these figures are no less dangerous for being essentially quite pathetic.

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Plotters: The UK Terrorists Who Failed by Lizzie Dearden is published by C Hurst & Co. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Journalist Lizzie Dearden has been covering terrorism and extremism for about a decade. In her first book, Plotters, she looks at a series of botched terrorist attacks in the UK between 2017 and 2022, examining the attackers’ motivations and the reasons they failed. Sometimes it was down to luck: one would-be perpetrator got waylaid by a malfunctioning satnav; another mistakenly equipped his homemade bomb with acetone-free nail polish remover instead of the regular stuff, rendering it harmless. Often it was a matter of an indiscreet boast to a friend, who then tipped off the police. Surveillance by the security services, whose undercover agents infiltrate online extremist networks by posing as fixers or sympathisers, proved critical in several cases.

As Dearden explains, these agents have to tread delicately: they must gain a suspect’s trust without actively egging them on – because entrapment would probably scupper any eventual prosecution; and they have to discern “the difference between online boasting, genuine intent and actual capability”. She speculates that the banning of far-right groups under anti-terrorism legislation – as happened with National Action in 2016 – may, in the long run, make this information-gathering work more difficult, forcing extremists to meet offline to avoid detection: “If terrorists move completely away from … formal or informal online groups, the loss of intelligence could be catastrophic.”

Plotters gives a useful overview of the demographic and ideological composition of the current terrorist threat. Islamists account for around half of all plots since 2017, with neo-Nazis comprising roughly one-fifth. A third category, of people whose ideology is “mixed, unstable or unclear”, is growing: one of the would-be attackers in this book was found to be primarily driven by an intense hatred of the people of Workington. Dearden writes that “teenagers and people with autism and mental health issues are taking up an increasing proportion of suspects prosecuted for terror offences”, with police attributing this variously to the ease of accessing terrorist propaganda online, the enforced isolation of the pandemic and a falling away of local support services. Looking to the future, she identifies a number of challenges for the security services: the potential threat posed by convicted terrorists who have served their time and are up for release; the networking that takes place in prisons, where radicalised individuals are able to intermingle; and the incubation of far-right hatred within online gaming communities.

This is, of course, a serious book, but it is also darkly funny in places. The plotters have a handy penchant for writing self-incriminating to-do lists. One aspiring jihadist incited followers on his Telegram channel to target the royal family by poisoning the ice-creams in the Windsors’ nearest Sainsbury’s. While plotting to plough a van into a crowd of people, Islamic State supporter Lewis Ludlow confessed to a friend that he had never learned to drive and was “a bit scared of crashing”. Another, Sahayb Abu, told police his IS flag and balaclava were merely part of a costume for his rap music alter ego, “the Masked Menace”, and the only reason he’d acquired a very sharp sword was that he “enjoyed YouTube videos of people cutting everyday objects, like paper and carpets”.

The plotters’ online search histories offer revealing insights into their psychological trajectories. The pathology of teenager Lloyd Gunton, who planned an attack on Cardiff after researching the security at a Justin Bieber concert, appears to have started with a macabre interest in suicide; this morphed into an obsession with gory violence, which in turn led him to become fixated with IS. Whatever their ideological persuasions, the individuals profiled here have some personality traits in common: social isolation, arrested development, a certain desperate credulousness. Unconvincing facial hair, pertinently suggestive of frustrated masculinity, is another running theme – we encounter beards that are variously “wispy”, “straggly” and “patchy”. In other circumstances they might have been deserving of sympathy, but these figures are no less dangerous for being essentially quite pathetic.

skip past newsletter promotion

Plotters: The UK Terrorists Who Failed by Lizzie Dearden is published by C Hurst & Co. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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