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London Attack: The Primary Question Facing British Intel Amid Terrorism Outbreak

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Armed police officers patrol streets near the scene of a terror attack in London, U.K., on June 4, 2017.
Armed police officers patrol streets near the scene of a terror attack in London, U.K., on June 4, 2017.Credit: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

The series of terrorist incidents that hit the U.K. over the past two months has dashed the Brits' hopes that they had dealt with all the breaches exposed during the July 2005 attacks on London’s public transportation system.

It will be difficult at this stage to find a common denominator among the three recent incidents – including the March 22 attack outside Parliament in London, the May 22 Manchester Arena bombing and Saturday's car-ramming and stabbing attack – until the identities of the three alleged assailants shot dead at the scene of the latest incident are disclosed.

The assailant in the March attack near Parliament, Khalid Masood, whose victims were also either run over or stabbed, apparently acted alone. On the other hand, the suicide bomber in Manchester, Salman Abedi, was part of a larger cell and had been in contact over a considerable period with Islamic State operatives in Libya, a country that he visited shortly before blowing himself up back in England.

At this point, all that is known about Saturday’s attackers in London is that they made up their own terrorist cell. The means that they chose – a commercial vehicle rented by the hour from a local firm, as well as knives and fake suicide vests – indicate the difficulties that terrorists have in smuggling conventional weapons into Britain – weaponry of the kind that ISIS terrorists have used in recent years in the major attacks in France and Belgium.

The primary question currently facing British intelligence agencies is whether the fact that the three attacks took place over a short period of time was a matter of happenstance, involving separate incidents that the police and intelligence services didn’t manage to foil, or whether the timing was planned. The attack near Parliament was apparently the act of someone operating of his own accord, even though he swore allegiance to ISIS. The suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena appeared to be much more orchestrated. If it turns out that Saturday’s attack was the work of a cell that had been in contact with ISIS, it would indicate a desire by the Islamic State to prove that while it is losing its main strongholds in Iraq and with the noose tightens around its headquarters in Raqqa in Syria, it can still carry out major terrorist acts in Europe.

And of course, one cannot ignore the fact that the two most recent attacks in Britain were committed after the announcement of early elections to Parliament in the United Kingdom, scheduled for Thursday. But the gaps in the polls continued to shrink despite the Manchester bombing. Just a month ago, the Conservatives had been leading Labour by an average of 20 percentage points. The faulty Conservative campaign run by Prime Minister Theresa May, her party’s platform calling for cuts in social benefits and at the same time a series of successful media and public appearances by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, whose platform has promised the world, has narrowed the gap in the polls by two-thirds. The pollsters are not in total agreement. They do still forecast a Conservative lead of between 1 and 13 percent, with an average of about 7 percent recorded over the weekend.

One thing, however, is clear. The sight of Prime Minister May in forceful control of the security services, reporting on the progress of the manhunt for accomplices of the Manchester bomber, has not lured the electorate back to her side. They remember that as home secretary, May had cut 20,000 police positions.

Meanwhile, Corbyn’s stance that British intervention in the wars in the Middle East has contributed to an increase in terrorism against the West has found a receptive ear among those who still believe that former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair led Britain to take part in the 2003 invasion of Iraq on false pretenses.

The most recent London attack has again led all of the parties to agree to a timeout in campaigning, although it can't last more than a day. The democratic process won’t be stopped. Without a doubt, the final days of the campaign will proceed against the backdrop of the scenes from Saturday night of police bursting into restaurants shouting to diners to lie on the ground.

British politicians have been very cautious not to leave the impression that they are exploiting terrorism and grief to their electoral advantage. It is now clear, however, that U.K. voters will be forced to make a choice on Thursday between May, who over the past seven years as home secretary and now prime minister has had responsibility for preventing precisely these kinds of attacks, and Corbyn, who in the past supported the Irish Republican Army while it was carrying out bombings in Britain. It was also Corbyn who called Hamas and Hezbollah “our friends” and who opposed a shoot-to-kill policy against terrorists.

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