Analysis

Days to Election, London Attack Turns Spotlight From Brexit to May's Failings on Britain's Security

In contest with war-on-terror critic Jeremy Corbyn, it is Theresa May who finds herself beleaguered by accusations of 'feet-dragging' over national security

A man lays flowers at a vigil for the victims of the London terror attack in Potters Fields Park, June 5, 2017.
CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/AFP

LONDON — The apartment block in the east London borough of Barking where until Saturday, one of the three terrorists who carried out the ramming and stabbing attack in London lived, is a relatively new and well-kept building.

Khuram Shazad Butt, a 27 year-old father of two, of Pakistani descent, was known to police and to the MI5 security service as a radical Islamic activist. But according to Scotland Yard, there was no previous information about him being connected to terrorist activity. On Sunday morning, armed police arrived here and arrested some of his relatives. Meanwhile, the media is full of accounts of how he was involved in local radical Islam activities, including footage of his taking part in a prayer session and flying a black flag of Islam — which has come to be associated with ISIS — with others in Regent’s Park.

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His neighbors describe a “nice and friendly man who would play with his children and other children outside.” A young man living in the building next door refuses to give his name. “Anything I say, you will use against Muslims. I knew him, he was a good guy.” Another neighbor, a woman of Bangladeshi descent with her head covered, named Farrah, says that “we are all shocked by what he did. That is not our version of Islam.”

Outwardly at least, the street where Butt lived does not resemble in any way the rundown suburbs of Paris, Nice and Brussels where these who carried out major attacks in France and Belgium grew up. It doesn’t look at all dilapidated. There is a lawn behind the house with mothers and children playing and across the road is a new primary school and health clinic. And yet, nearly all the residents are migrants or the children of migrants and few on the street are speaking English.

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Ben Judah, a London-born journalist who last year published a best-selling book on how large parts of Britain’s capital have become isolated immigrant quarters, says that “Barking has become an area of black and Bengali flight from inner-city London and white flight away from London. It’s the landing-pad for immigrants from Eastern Europe as well. There’s no real sense of community there and nothing to integrate in to. Not far from there is Ilford Lane, a hub of sex trafficking and illegal labor. It’s the kind of place where the government’s cuts have hit hard and you don’t have enough people checking on housing and social conditions. A young man there can be swept up into any kind of dystopian vision of Babylonian vice and a desperate desire to cleanse what he sees around him.”

Just like in the two previous major terror attacks over the last two and a half months in Britain, it seems that the perpetrators in Sunday’s attack were also on the security services’ radar. In these circumstances, Prime Minister Theresa May’s tough “Enough is enough” speech on Sunday, in which she announced a zero-tolerance policy towards Islamic extremism and promised to crack down on online incitement sounds rather hollow. “She didn’t say anything new,” says a senior official in the previous government of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Under Cameron, similar policies were formulated in Downing Street, but the implementation was supposed to be in the hands of the Home Office, under the auspices of the Home Secretary who, between 2010 and 2016, was Theresa May. “We were very frustrated by the way the Home Office dragged feet,” says the official. “There wasn’t a list of potential suspects, laws to deal specifically with radical Islam didn’t materialize and all they did was set up bureaucratic reviews. Policy from Number Ten (Downing Street) was sent to the Home Office to die.”

Three days before the general election, May is now being judged for her failings as Home Secretary. The election was supposed to be about Brexit; chiefly who does the British public trust to lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Instead, it may become a confidence vote on how May has dealt for the last seven years with threats to Britain’s security.

This wasn’t supposed to be her Achilles heel. Especially not with her main opponent being Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservative Party’s election machine, backed up by the right-wing media, has been trying in recent days to remind voters that it was Corbyn who voted against every piece of anti-terror legislation in parliament. That it was Corbyn who opposed arrests of British Muslims returning from fighting in Syria and Iraq. Corbyn who was against allowing the police to “shoot-to-kill” terrorists on the streets and who cooperated with the IRA and called Hamas and Hezbollah “friends.” This may not be that interesting to the British public at this stage.

Corbyn has changed his tune in recent days, expressing his full support for the police and emergency services, and his confidence that they have the correct powers. For the last couple of days the Labour campaign has hidden Corbyn’s close ally and shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, in the past a fierce critic of the police. It may work. The voters have been hearing for nearly two years, ever since Corbyn’s surprise election as the Labour Party’s leader, how radical and terrorist-friendly he is, or at least used to be. That’s already an old story. The story of a hapless Home Secretary who failed to upgrade the security services and cut the number of armed police on the street, is much fresher and more compelling.

“The sentiments that Theresa May expressed are excellent in every way,” says Prof. Anthony Glees, director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at Buckinghamshire University. “But we need to ask why did you do none of these things before — you’ve been in charge since 2010. Why didn’t you place an exclusion order on Salman Abedi [the terrorist who detonated himself two weeks ago in Manchester, killing 22 people] who came back from Libya to the U.K.? There are other things that she could have done and she herself has robbed the British state of powers to fight terror, like the control orders she abolished in 2010.”

Glees adds: “The British voters now have to choose between May, who has proven herself inept in confronting terror, and Corbyn who has flirted with every extreme terrorist group. And Corbyn offers an attractive position to those who prefer appeasement over strong opposition. There are only a few days left until the election and that isn’t enough time to have a serious debate on confronting terrorism.”

Not only does May’s tough message now sound hollow, with all the criticism of how she handled Britain’s security. It may be falling on deaf ears as well, when many Britons are more inclined towards a message of love and togetherness as an antidote to terror.

“Britain has had some incredible success in integration,” says historian and filmmaker Tom Holland, who recently completed a documentary on ISIS. “Sadiq Khan [London’s Muslim Mayor] is a truly inspirational figure and one can acknowledge these successes and feel good about them and light candles and sing ‘Imagine’ and talk about love and not hate. But we have to accept that there is a minority of Muslims who haven’t integrated and unfortunately some of them go down the groove of ISIS propaganda or radical clerics who give them a feeling of supremacy and that hatred of infidels is sanctioned by Islam and that non-Muslims are deserving of punishment. The government keeps saying there are solutions but there isn’t a ready solution because [if there were] we would have tried it already.”