The bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria, Egypt, at the weekend, apparently by a radical Islamist, was widely reported as a suicide attack. This is a serious misnomer.

The intention of a person who commits suicide is to kill himself or herself. The aim of the perpetrator of the crime in Alexandria was to kill as many Christians as possible. This is murder. The act is perhaps best described as suicide/homicide.

Egypt’s President, Hosni Mubarak, has said that the attack was the work of “foreign hands”. He seems to believe that the suicide/homicide attack was organised by a person loyal to al-Qaeda who entered Egypt to commit crime – following threats by Osama bin Laden’s followers directed at Egypt’s Copts. This analysis is probably correct.

Recent evidence from Britain, Denmark, Sweden and the US indicates that attacks on Western targets have been thwarted by a combination of good intelligence and good luck. Danish and Swedish police say they prevented an attempt to massacre staff at the newspaper Jyllands-Posten in protest at its decision in 2005 to publish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

In Britain, authorities say they stopped an attack on the US embassy in London and the London Stock Exchange. In Stockholm in mid-December the Swedish-born and British-educated Taimur Abdulwahab al-Abdaly killed himself while attempting, unsuccessfully, to murder as many Christmas shoppers as possible. And then there was the attempted terrorist attack in Times Square, New York, last May.

What all these activities have in common is that they were apparently the work of a “lone wolf” or, rather, a number of lone wolves. The term has been used by

Dr Sajjan Gohel, of the Asia-Pacific Foundation.

According to his research, the number of attacks that have been controlled by what he terms

“al-Qaeda central” has diminished since 2006. He attributes this to several factors. First, the original

al-Qaeda central organisation “has been severely disrupted by allied operations in north and south Waziristan along the Afghan-Pakistan border region”. Second, al-Qaeda is finding it harder to raise and receive finance.

This leads Gohel to conclude that the growing concern in the West is to individuals who are not connected to any particular cell or network but who became “radicalised as a result of jihadist literature online”.

Roshonara Choudhry is a case in point. A gifted student at King’s College London who is fluent in four languages, she was influenced by the American-born and Yemen-based Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Last May, inspired by al-Awlaki’s teachings on the internet, she tried to stab to death a Labour MP, Stephen Timms. Choudhry was a lone-wolf attacker who decided to be a martyr. It is all but impossible for intelligence organisations to thwart such attacks.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is another case. The son of a successful and wealthy Nigerian family, he allegedly tried to bring down an aircraft bound for Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 by igniting chemicals strapped to his inner leg.

Many members of the civil liberties lobby in Australia opposed the Howard government’s Anti-Terrorism Act in 2005, which was supported by the Labor opposition. However, a number of jury trials in Australia have supported the view that there are people in Australia who have planned terrorist attacks.

First, there were convictions in the Operation Pendennis trials – the first in Sydney, the second in Melbourne. Juries were convinced, after lengthy trials and long deliberations, that Abdul Nacer Benbrika and some Islamist associates had conspired to undertake terrorist attacks on targets in Australia. In both cases the defendants were provided with able defence teams, courtesy of the Australian taxpayer.

Second, last month, a jury in Melbourne convicted three Islamists for taking part in a conspiracy (termed by police Operation Neath) to wage an attack on Holsworthy army base in Sydney. Two of the accused were acquitted after another long trial and lengthy jury deliberation.

What was particularly disturbing about Operation Neath turned on the evident contempt of the Somalia-born Saney Aweys for his fellow Australians. Yet Aweys’s intercepted phone conversations indicate that he was more than willing to accept welfare payments in support of his wife and children and saw no contradiction in residing in public housing while condemning what he termed the “filthy people” who make up contemporary Australia.

The convictions in the Operation Pendennis and Operation Neath cases support Gohel’s thesis. There is no evidence that those convicted were operating in accordance with directives from al-Qaeda central – unlike those Islamists who took part in the attacks in the US in 2001 or the attacks in Britain in 2005. Rather, the current danger in Australia appears to turn on individuals who have been radicalised at home or after brief visits overseas.

It is difficult to obtain guilty verdicts in conspiracy cases where no physical attack has taken place.

The success of counter-terrorism operations in Australia so far suggests that police and intelligence services are doing well in a difficult environment.

As the mainstream British Muslim Mohammed Bashir said recently of Islamists groups in Luton: “They enjoy living in this country and then spend all their time speaking out against it; they are fools but they are also very dangerous.”

The sad fact is that some of these dangerous fools commit, or conspire to commit, suicide/homicide.