Britain’s national threat level was raised to its highest level – critical – on Friday night, meaning that a terror attack is considered imminent. The decision was taken by the security services and announced by Prime Minister Theresa May.
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There are three reasons for raising the level, which was already at its second highest, severe, before Friday morning’s bombing attack that injured 29 passengers on London’s subway system, better known as the Tube.
The first is operational: The perpetrator managed to flee the scene alive and, in many terror attacks in the past in which the perpetrators escaped, they went on to carry out a second attack or died in a violent confrontation with security forces within days. If the 18-year-old arrested in the port city of Dover on Saturday morning is indeed the Parsons Green bomber (the Tube station where the improvised explosive device partially exploded on a train), the threat level will probably go down very soon.
The second reason is the failure of intelligence services to detect any “whispers” between known supporters of terrorism in advance of the bombing. Now they are going back and checking if they missed anything and, more important, if the bomber had any accomplices.
The third reason is political. Prime Minister May has been under continuous criticism since running a dismal election campaign nearly four months ago. Her televised announcement on Friday was part of an attempt to rebuild her “in control” and “tough on terror” image, and to remind the public that the alternative to her government is Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who in the past has been on friendly terms with groups like the Irish Republican Army, Hamas and Hezbollah.
As part of raising the threat level, the government also initiated Operation Temperer, under which hundreds of soldiers are spread out in critical parts of London, allowing armed police officers to patrol the streets and counterterror teams to hunt down the perpetrator and any possible accomplices.
In the days after the attack on London’s public transport network on July 7, 2005, police were placed at Tube stations, checking passengers and their bags. That was discontinued after a couple of weeks.
London’s subway network alone has 270 stations, and when you add the “overground” and national rail stations, maintaining a constant security presence at all of them would mean hiring thousands of additional police officers.
The same is true of any other large city facing a terror threat against its public transportation system. In Israel, twice after a wave of suicide bombings in Jerusalem – 1996 and again in 2002 – soldiers were positioned at every bus stop in the capital. It was a confidence-building measure for the general public that lasted only a few days.
Friday’s explosion at the west London Tube station will once again raise questions over the need to protect bus and train stations. The reality is that only the large central hubs can be secured. A potential attacker with an explosive device or firearm who makes it to their neighborhood subway station or bus stop at the end of the street cannot be stopped.
The massive resources required to put armed guards at each and every stop, or to install advanced detectors at every entrance, are too prohibitive for any government – and, quite frankly, whatever resources there are for security are better invested in making sure an attacker never gets anywhere near a bus or train.
The Islamic State group claimed Friday that “the bombing ... in the London Tube was carried out by a unit affiliated to the Islamic State.” Based on recent experiences, it is not surprising that a media outlet of ISIS made such an announcement. Still, the chances are that, if it was an ISIS attack, the terrorist never actually traveled to one of the now shrinking areas of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq; he wouldn’t have needed to.
Jihadist terror is no longer a network – it has become a franchise, and anyone around the world can become a franchisee. And just like someone opening up a branch of a fast-food franchise, there is an operating manual on how to go about doing so. Aspiring ISIS bombers can find out all they need to know about building bombs on the internet. But bomb-building is not so simple for those embarking on it for the first time and without an experienced teacher.
From the little we know about the still anonymous Parsons Green bomber, he doesn’t seem to have done a particularly good job following the manual. A well-constructed explosive device within a packed, closed environment is deadly. Even Friday morning’s “burning bucket” was sufficient to injure 29 passengers.
We haven’t seen many bombs exploding in London and other major Western cities largely because, instead of pouring resources into guarding bus stops and subway stations, European governments in the last few years have given their intelligence services more funds and powers to track and apprehend citizens who fought with ISIS in Syria and Iraq and then returned home.
Najim Laachraoui, the Moroccan-Belgian bomb-maker who succeeded in returning home to Brussels, proved what an experienced explosives expert can do with the attacks he planned and executed in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.
Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber who killed 23 people at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in May, almost certainly received training in visits to ISIS contacts in Libya, shortly before he carried out his attack.
The knowledge gap between the ISIS fighters who have acquired experience on the battlefields of the Middle East and the aspiring franchisees who didn’t have the chance to travel to the caliphate, and who may not even be on any list of potential suspects, will determine how devastating future terror attacks in the West will be. And it is the weak link that intelligence services are pushing at hard.
Now that Islamic State is losing nearly all its large strongholds in the Middle East, the experience gained by tens of thousands of its fighters will fuel their jihad for years and decades to come. Just as the experience many Muslim volunteers gained in the 1980s fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan provided the impetus later for Al-Qaida, new jihadists can always take a knife, gun or truck and try to wreak havoc on a street in a Western city.
But as we have seen in the past, the suicide bomb is not only the most destructive weapon in their arsenal – it also creates a potent narrative of martyrdom for those who seek to follow.