Analysis

In London, Terror Changes Form, but Challenge to Democracy Remains

Attack on mother of all parliaments shows that even Europe's best security services can't stop every lone wolf.

An armed British police officer stands on duty as members of the emergency services gather at the Carriage Gates entrance of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London on March 22, 2017, during an emergency incident.
DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS/AFP

The calendar of terror is filled with anniversaries. Wednesday's attack outside the Houses of Parliament in London, in which two civilians, a police officer and the attacker were killed, took place exactly a year after explosions at Brussels Airport and at a subway station in the Belgian capital, perpetrated by a terrorist cell affiliated with the Islamic State, killed 32 people. This week five years ago, three students and a teacher were murdered outside Otzar Hatorah, a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

The London attack came a day after the death of Martin McGuinness. This Irish Republican Army commander, who helped lead the Irish nationalist terror campaign against Britain, became an architect of the Good Friday peace accord of 1998, in which the IRA committed to disbanding and continuing its struggle against British rule in Northern Ireland through nonviolent means. 

Wednesday's attack was a sharp reminder that Britain, like the rest of the West, faces a very different terror threat than the one it fought in the last decades of the 20th century. The attacker’s identity has not yet been confirmed, but the circumstances known so far underline once again the difficulty of Western security services in addressing attackers who are inspired, and sometimes operated, by jihadi groups such as Islamic State and Al-Qaida. 

Even if it turns out that the attacker was known to British intelligence and law enforcement, he will have been just one of thousands of U.K. residents who are suspected of involvement in extremist activities. Monitoring all of these suspects in a democratic environment requires the application of significantly more resources as well as changes to the paradigms of intelligence gathering and perhaps also changes in legislation.

There are significant differences between some of the recent terror attacks in Europe, as well as much in common. Last year’s attack in Brussels, like the one which took place a few months earlier in Paris, was carried out by a large Islamic State cell equipped with a range of weapons and explosives. In Britain with its strict gun laws and probably the most professional security services in Europe, such an attack would be much more difficult to carry out. Since the attacks on public transport in London in July 2005, dozens of terror attempts have been prevented annually in Britain. A ramming and stabbing attack by a lone attacker was always much more likely. 

A woman assist an injured person after an incident on Westminster Bridge in London, March 22, 2017.
TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS

The last similar attack was the stabbing to death of a British soldier on a London street in May 2013. Similar attacks took place last year when a truck killed 86 people on Nice’s promenade and in December when twelve were killed at a Christmas market in Berlin. 

The sad irony is that the attack on London came just a day after the United States and Britain announced that passengers from a list of Muslim countries would not be allowed to board planes carrying laptop or tablet computers for fear that they could be disguised explosive devices. Once again it has been proved that there’s no need of a sophisticated bomb to carry out a major attack in the heart of a Western capital.

In the past other European governments criticized Britain for allowing radical preachers and activists to spread their message in its territory, as long as they don’t use violence. The large concentration of radicals in the capital of the United Kingdom led to its nickname “Londonistan.” The reality though is that Britain has suffered less terror attacks in recent years than France, Belgium and Germany. 

One of the reasons Britain has suffered less, besides the professionalism of its security services, which had the experience of fighting Irish Republican terrorism since the 1970s, is the island’s detachment from the rest of the continent and the fact that it is not part of the borderless Schengen zone. Yesterday’s attack will only deepened the argument between those who claim that Britain’s impending departure from the European Union will allow to take better control of its borders and those who fear that leaving the EU will hamper the critical cooperation and intelligence-sharing between the continent’s security services. 

Either way, it won’t help Britain much in preventing attacks by local radicalized citizens. Israeli commentators expect the British to adopt the tactics which allowed Israel in the last year and a half to profile and identify young Palestinian men and women as potential lone attackers in advance and greatly minimized the scale of terror in Israel and the West Bank. This style of profiling is much more difficult in a Western society where communities cannot be singled out and targeted based on their ethnicity and religion and many forms of electronic surveillance used by Israel are illegal in Britain. The dilemma will continue to be just how much of its citizens’ civil liberties is the British government willing to sacrifice in order to provide the security services with the tools to prevent further attacks.

A democracy’s struggle against terror will always come at some price to its values. It can’t be a price though that will itself be a victory to the terrorists. Even when the IRA terror was at its peak, Britain still allowed those it suspected of directing it, including McGuinness, to take part in the general elections and be elected in the Catholic areas of Northern Ireland. An important precedent to bear in mind on the day after an attack on the mother of Parliaments.