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The Westminster attack shows the new challenges facing UK counter-terrorism

In The News, 24 March 2017
International Security Studies, UK, Global Security Issues, Terrorism
'This raises the fear that as Isis is pushed out of the Middle East, leading to an influx of returning foreign fighters, attacks like yesterday’s will become more frequent. It is important, however, not to exaggerate this fear. '

On Wednesday, the wave of terror attacks witnessed in Europe and elsewhere struck at the heart of London. The attacker has now been identified as Khalid Masood, born in Kent – a 52-year-old known to the security services. Isis has also claimed responsibility, although their inability to name the attacker before the police did raises some doubts as to the veracity of such claims.

Even if investigation proves a link to Islamic State, the fact is that the new norm of “low-tech” attacks are not unique to them or to other jihadi groups, but to all those willing to inflict terror or indeed criminality. This raises serious security questions and highlights the significance of the UK’s comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy, which is designed not only to prevent attacks but to minimise the impact when one happens.

It was unsurprising that, after 24 hours, Isis’s Amaq news agency released a statement claiming the attacker was “a soldier of the Islamic State”. The attack bore the hallmarks of events last year in Nice and Berlin, which were attributed to Isis (though in those cases HGVs were used), but the group is often keen to claim responsibility for attacks even when direct links are tenuous.

As the space for Isis in Syria and Iraq has contracted, the group has also increasingly emphasised the significance of its western supporters carrying out attacks at home rather than travelling to the “caliphate”. Last May, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, a close aide and (before he was killed) a potential successor to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said lone actor attacks in the US and Europe were “dearer to us than the biggest action by us” in Iraq and Syria.

This raises the fear that as Isis is pushed out of the Middle East, leading to an influx of returning foreign fighters, attacks like yesterday’s will become more frequent. It is important, however, not to exaggerate this fear. Not only should we avoid bolstering Isis propaganda, but the distinction between “inspired” and “directed” is important. Although a series of arrests have been made in connection to the event, authorities say they are still acting on the basis that the assailant was operating alone and that there is no intelligence further attacks will follow. It is also important to remember that lone actor attacks have also been carried out by the extreme right in recent years in Europe. Only last June, the Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by the extreme rightwing terrorist Thomas Mair. Attacks have also been carried out by those later declared to be criminals or with mental illness.

This attack was not only symbolic – striking at the centre of British democracy and power – but also rather audacious, targeting one of the most heavily guarded buildings and areas in the city. As the days pass, questions will be asked about how the UK can protect itself against future attacks of this nature. The issue is that substantial security measures are already in place, and there is no way that total security can be guaranteed in a busy, modern city.

For the intelligence and security officials responsible for the country’s safety, it was simply a matter of time before of an attack of this nature was brought to the streets of London. This is why the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy rests on four pillars: prevent, pursue, prepare and protect. The approach is designed not only to prevent attacks but to minimise the impact when one happens. That the assailant breached parliament’s gates is a concern, but the fact he was stopped from going further, highlights that the measures put in place and ramped up over the years essentially worked.

That said, the increased tendency to employ easily accessible, low-cost, unsophisticated methods to inflict terror makes this job all the more difficult. The use of these tools is not new, but these attacks appear to be the new norm and reflects the way terrorist techniques can spread through a process of diffusion and imitation. Such plots are almost impossible to uncover when there is little or no command and control, particularly without resorting to police-state type tactics. This makes the “prevention” aspect of the counter-terrorism strategy – working to prevent people from becoming or supporting terrorists – more important than ever. It is worth also keeping in mind that one of the driving grievances behind terrorism in some countries is overly aggressive security responses.

The quick reaction of the police, security and medical services on Wednesday revealed the extent of planning that has gone into preparing for the worst. The rapid response ensured that outside the immediate Westminster vicinity, the rest of London was able to go about life as normal.

The quick resumption of business as usual is not to downplay the serious nature of the attack nor the harm it caused to its victims and their relatives. But it is this kind of resilient response that is needed in these uncertain times.

This article first appeared on the Guardian website

In The News

Emily Winterbotham
Senior Research Fellow

Emily is a Senior Research Fellow in the National Security and Resilience programme at RUSI focusing on extremism... read more