Key sectors: all
Key risks: terrorism; political violence
The 22 March car and knife attack in Westminster has highlighted security concerns in the UK once again. As of the time of writing, five people including the 52-year-old attacker, Kent-born Adrian Russel Elms, died in the attack. The incident has both seen praise for the security forces’ rapid response and consternation over the government’s ability to hinder such attacks considering it only involved a household knife, automobile and dedicated assailant. What should be made clear is that the risk of terrorist attacks cannot be entirely mitigated in an open liberal society. However, the attack also highlights wider European trends that pose a threat to UK security. Yet these must be countenanced by a fuller understanding of the domestic security picture in Britain.
While the attack was unsuccessful, the 20 October 2016 controlled-detonation of an apparent improvised explosive device (IED) at North Greenwich station is also relevant, as is the 16 June 2016 murder of MP Jo Cox. Elms’ coverage has been almost entirely under his assumed Muslim name, Khalid Masood. However, both Elms/Masood and the suspect in the North Greenwich incident, Damon Smith, acted independently. Thomas Mair, Cox’s murderer, on the other hand had extensive ties to far-right extremist groups.
It is indisputable that IS’ attempts to terrorise Europe and the wider Western world are the most prominent security risk. The spate of attacks witnessed in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Nice, London and Orlando have left hundreds dead. Not only has IS demonstrated intent and capacity to conduct centrally co-ordinated attacks, it has also called on supporters to carry out attacks independently. In recent months, al-Qaeda has also increased its calls for supporters to engage in such ‘lone-wolf’ attacks. While the most damaging attacks will remain those that are centrally-organised, security agencies have already updated their crisis response mechanisms to attempt to limit the fallout and impact of future attacks.
These methods involve attempts to limit the geographical footprint of an attack, as demonstrated by the response to the Westminster attack and the security cordon imposed on much of the surrounding area for the remainder of the day. Such measures were also implemented in the aforementioned North Greenwich incident, and are aimed at preventing a repeat of the November 2015 Paris attacks, in which the attackers travelled across Paris, rapidly carrying out attacks in numerous locations or the embarrassing escape of suspects in the Brussels Airport and metro bombing, which took place exactly one year before the Westminster attack.
However, major security challenges remain outstanding. The most immediate questions will be how to identify future ‘lone-wolves’ and how to minimise the impact of vehicular attacks. Weaponisation of cars and trucks in terrorist attacks is not new: the first known such incident is alleged to have been when a rogue Israeli soldier killed four Palestinians after driving his truck into a crowd in Gaza’s Jabalya refugee camp in 1987 (Israel maintains it was an accident). Following the Westminster, Berlin, and Nice attacks, developing methods to mitigate the impact of such attacks will be amongst Western security forces’ foremost concerns. As for targeting lone-wolves, the fact the intelligence services were unaware of both the Westminster and Cox plots highlights that this is not just an issue relevant to terrorism motivated by Islamist extremism. How to challenge these issues presents significant challenges to British security services.