The terror attack in which two civilians were stabbed to death on Friday afternoon at London Bridge became an instant myth of “London spirit,” after images emerged of three members of the public wielding a fire extinguisher and a narwhal tusk to overpower the attacker before the police arrived.
But as the hours passed, more details came out about the attacker, Usman Khan. He had taken part in the plans in the early 2000s to unleash a campaign of terror across London and was convicted in 2012 but released after less than seven years in prison.
He was supposed to be monitored by an electronic tracking bracelet. The target of the attack was an event for former, ostensibly reformed prisoners, and one of the casualties was the coordinator of the event. It looked like an attack that should have been anticipated and prevented.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to announce that if he wins the general election on Decembe 12, his Conservative government would do away with such light sentences. It isn’t clear whether this will be enough to make voters forget that in nearly a decade of the Conservatives being in power, the numbers of police and prison officers were drastically cut.
Johnson himself may have been in Downing Street for less than half a year, but Khan’s radicalization and terror-related activities were on the watch of governments in which he was a member. During this time, the threat of Islamist terrorists who were radicalized online and by sermons of extreme preachers intensified — especially when they had a home base in the Islamic State’s caliphate in the Middle East.
The key to dealing with supporters of ISIS and Al-Qaida in the West remains cooperation between Western security services. Many of those who were radicalized and were in contact with ISIS — even if they didn’t travel to fight in its service — came up on the screens of intelligence organizations. Intelligence-sharing was a critical element in ending the wave of terror attacks across Europe that began in 2014. The question is whether it will renew now, when ISIS seems to be on the back foot and Western governments are less united than in the past.
British voters worried about further attacks will have to ask themselves whether one of the potential prime ministers has a real policy, beyond slogans, to improve their safety. Johnson, who is determined that the United Kingdom leave the European Union as soon as possible after the election, hasn’t made it clear how he plans to reinforce Britain’s security alliances once it is out of the EU. His rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has been hostile to NATO his whole career and doesn’t seem to have much of a relevant security policy. But in the British political system, which has been stood on its head by Brexit, voters may not be asking these questions.
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The previous parliamentary election in 2017 was also held in the shadow of terror attacks, much larger than Friday's. A suicide bomber killed 23 people outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester and, days later, on London Bridge, very close to the spot of the latest attack, a group of three terrorists murdered eight people.
The initial expectation then was that the attacks would damage Corbyn’s public standing. After all, he had famously met with members of terror organizations in London, including the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah and Hamas, whom he called “friends.”
But that didn’t prove to be the case. Corbyn’s Labour didn’t win the election, but he went up in the polls in the days after each attack. On Election Day, the Conservatives lost their parliamentary majority and could only form a minority government. The public in Britain tends to hold the incumbent government responsible.
After taking a break from campaigning for a day after the attack, the candidates will be back on the trail and in the television studios on Sunday. Two alternative narratives will be competing: The opposition will portray Johnson and his party as incurable cutters of public services, including the police and prison services, thereby endangering public safety. The Conservatives will frame Corbyn as a friend of terrorists who could not even bring himself to approve the Americans’ targeted killings of the leaders of ISIS and Al-Qaida.
It may not matter much. If there are no further attacks by December 12, security will not be a major issue deciding the election. For now, Brexit overshadows everything.