The third terrorist attack in the space of two months means that the United Kingdom is undergoing a test that it shouldn’t have to take. The UK had seemed to be relatively invulnerable to random Jihadist attacks, as Belgium, France and Germany, all suffered attacks, then Sweden and Russia. Warnings by counterterrorism specialists of the danger of a terrorist attack in the UK were listened to, the people aware of an actual threat, but the attacks did not come. Then three took place in rapid succession, Westminster, Manchester and now London Bridge, in an unprecedented series of attacks. At the time of writing seven people are dead, others are still missing, and many more are in hospital. That more are not dead is due to a swift and terminal response by the British Police.
We have seen the resilience, moments of heroism, unity, kindness and steadfast defiance that have come to define the response of cities to a distinct kind of terrorism, and, as the names and nationalities of the victims show, the international impact of each attack. The brutality of the London Bridge attack is part of a global trauma that has no end in sight. Here we will focus on the UK. The weekly blog, which focuses on international conflict and conflict resolution, will address events worldwide.
There are also the knee-jerk responses, with calls for immediate action against both suspected jihadists and the Muslim communities in which they hide, some of these calls for action happening even before the facts are known. The first is a natural response to those who commit murder under the flag of an illegitimate self-declared state and its brutal ideology, the second is outright discrimination against people who have no love for Jihadists. Anger and the need to maintain the security of one’s country are natural responses when an attack such as that in London takes place, but this should be firmly directed at the architects of violence and not the innocent. The UK learned a hard lesson in counterterrorism during the years of violence in Northern Ireland: hit those who use violence for political ends hard, but don’t punish the communities they claim to represent for the transgressions of the guilty.
Yet, even the most sober analysis indicates that the situation as it stands needs to change. The UK has very robust laws and an experienced counterterrorism capability that includes prevention. Clearly, there has been a failure if people known to the security services go on to carry out an attack, particularly when concerns about individuals have been reported. The cornerstone of the UK’s long term counterterrorism strategy is Prevent, aimed at reducing terrorism of all types, and it is undeniable that Prevent has been controversial. At times it has been misapplied, and so acting counter to its purpose, but in its goal of counter-radicalisation it is a preventative strategy that is valuable, if hard to measure. It is due a review, and this should take place immediately. There is also the question of resources. Both the intelligence services and the Police are woefully under-resourced for the task that they face. Investing in both and increasing their numbers will give them a fighting chance to do their work: the structures for countering terrorism effectively are already in place. The Prevent strategy is also underfunded and needs revision to achieve its goals. There will be an inquiry into how the five attackers ‘slipped the net’, as the killers of Lee Rigby also did, and this needs to be open and honest and free of political agendas and finger pointing.
This is for the future. In the here and now there has been one impact on the UK that needs to be stopped immediately. In the final week of an election campaign the debate has turned firmly towards the question of security. Tomorrow, on the 8th June, the people of the UK vote for their new government and when they go to the polls they must vote for their party of choice based on all their policies, not only those about security and foreign policy. Finally, the division bell is ringing loudly for all to hear and it should be ignored less we give the bad guys what they want.
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Dr Carl Turner,