London police response phenomenal but broader problem is one of scale
Radicalised community in UK may be too large and dynamic to successfully contain
Armed police officers patrol on Borough High Street in London on Sunday, following the terror attack on Saturday night. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/AFP/Getty Images
At 10.08pm on Saturday, a white van heading north on London Bridge pulled a U-turn and, accelerating to 80km an hour, careened on to the footpath knocking down a number of pedestrians.
When it stopped just south of the bridge, three men emerged with large knives and canisters attached to their military-style webbing and quickly moved south into the warren of backstreets around Borough Market, where they stabbed, punched and kicked further victims enjoying the area’s many bars and restaurants.
Anyone who, like I as a former resident, has walked Stoney Street, can easily imagine the terror of not knowing what was happening or which way to run in the initial moments of the attack.
Within eight minutes of the first call to emergency services, eight Metropolitan Police firearms officers had fired 50 rounds, killing all three attackers in Borough Market’s streets. Such a response time to a marauding attack is quite simply phenomenal.
It indicates that high readiness armed response teams were on standby nearby, and that they were quickly and accurately dispatched to the scene. Indeed, security sources have mentioned that such was the threat over the last week that these teams had been sitting in their vehicles with the engines running in anticipation of such an attack.
Similarly, British counterterror police are also well resourced and have been trained by the SAS, from which an elite team helicoptered into the area during the incident. Some victims were in nearby hospitals in six minutes. The response machine clearly works, then.
The speed and co-ordination of the Met Police’s response was also indicated by its rapid sharing of information to the public, with those in the area being advised, in order of priority, to “run, hide and tell”. Within hours of the attack 12 people had also been arrested in Barking.
However, despite these actions, seven civilians were killed and 48 wounded in the assault, including a civilian accidentally shot by police. This highlights that, even in a nation with some of the best intelligence services in the world, and in a city with the best counterterrorism police in the world, short marauding attacks can be lethal.
Moreover, in the last three months, Salafi jihadist terrorists have killed 34 civilians in the UK and wounded at least 214 by a mixture of crude (Westminster and London Bridge) and more sophisticated (Manchester) tactics. The same goes for Europe and the US more broadly: since May 2014, 394 citizens have been killed and more than 1,400 wounded by jihadists.
In addition to these three successful attacks, the British security services have disrupted a further five terrorist plots in the UK since March, bringing the total to 18 since 2013. They have proven able to stop so many primarily due to their good relations with local Muslim communities, who provide the essential human intelligence tip-offs that alert the security services in the first place and allow them to allocate further resources. Indeed, one of UK policing’s biggest lessons from the July 7th, 2005, London bombings was the need to develop strong community relations and sources.
More information will come out about the London Bridge terrorists in the coming days, but it is clear that, as with the Westminster and Manchester attacks, the security services did not have sufficient information to stop the plot beforehand. Generally good relations with Muslim communities has apparently failed to help in these instances. This is a worrying development as it indicates that either terrorists are becoming better at hiding their tracks from their own communities, and/or reports from these communities have not been followed up.
While, to date, most Salafist jihadi terrorists have not been radicalised online alone, the widespread use of encrypted messaging app Telegram has allowed terrorist networks to communicate with relative ease. In this regard, some social media outlets have become better at regulating extremist traffic, but much more pressure must be brought for apps such as Telegram to follow suit. At the moment, security sources report it’s a ‘“free for all’” on the app, with jihadist groups exchanging attack methodologies and technical manuals at ease.
Related to this is the constant and rapid evolution of terrorist tactics, techniques and procedures. These are pitted against security services’ countermeasures in an ongoing battle of wits and technology.
Another major problem the British authorities face is the scale of the jihadist threat in the UK. As Europol director Rob Wainwright has said, this is the “reality of fighting today’s terrorist threat: MI5 and police do a great job but [the] radicalised community [is] too large and dynamic to contain 100 per cent”.
I understand from security sources that some 3,000 jihadi terrorist suspects are currently being monitored in the UK, and 500 potential plots. Add to this that there are an estimated 400 people from Britain fighting for the Islamic State terror group abroad and the size of the problem is becomes stark.
By comparison, the IRA’s active membership during the height of the Troubles is usually put at between 1,500 and 5,000. While the IRA threat was different in terms of its political and territorial objectives and popular support, its scale was that of an insurgency. As Maajid Nawaz – a former extremist now turned deradicaliser – told the BBC’s Frank Gardner: an “[Islamic State]-inspired insurgency has now reached Britain’s shores”.
Given the number of potential extremists in the UK, and the likely flow of battle-hardened young men back from Iraq and Syria as Islamic State is defeated, some former intelligence sources believe the recent attacks are simply “the tip of the iceberg”.
Dr Patrick Bury is lecturer in security at Cranfield University, the UK defence academy.