Politics in a time of terror
Dr Andrew Mumford
School of Politics
and International Relations
The dust has now settled on a general election overshadowed in a profound and unprecendented way by terrorism. Both the targeting and timing of the attacks on the Manchester Arena and on London Bridge were deliberate. Terrorists are, fundamentally, attention seekers. They want political attention for their cause, hence the concentration of attacks in the midst of a hard-fought snap election. They also want the attention of the wider public as coercion through fear is an essential terrorist tactic.
But 'Keep calm and carry on' has been adopted as an informal counter-terrorist mantra. The levels of resilience on show in both cities in the wake of the attacks are proof of the refusal of society to provide succour
to extremists. The tales of herorism and resistance around Borough Market, from off-duty medical staff to football fans enjoying a Saturday night pint, are a testament to how the fabric of British society reacts in the face of appalling violence.
New challenges for UK security
Terrorism in the UK and Europe today is certainly more unpredictable than in previous decades given the shift away from nationalist groups with hierarchical structures to religious extremist organisations reliant upon connections of small cells and 'lone actors'. Yet it is not more prolific. We are still not close to the peak of terrorist attacks witnessed in the 1970s or 1980s, as measured by the Global Terrorism Database, when groups such as the IRA, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, ETA in Spain, and the Italian Red Brigade, were collectively perpetrating up to 10 attacks a week across Western Europe.
Yet the rise of extremists pledging allegiance to groups like the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) creates new challenges for UK national security. We need to take into account changes to the nature of ISIS itself.
Over the last two years, ISIS has lost 40% of the terrority it controlled over Iraq and Syria.
The self-proclaimed caliphate is being rolled back by national armies and militia groups, as well as weakened by Western airstrikes. There are even rumours as to the death of the group's leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Over the past few months, ISIS propaganda has shifted its emphasis from encouraging radicalised Westerners to travel to Syria to fight and instead remain in their home countries and perpetrate domestic attacks. Manchester and London have sadly joined Paris, Nice and Brussels on the list of cities to have borne the brunt of this tactical shift by a terrorist group having to adapt in order to survive.
Intelligence in the age of the internet
The internet has become a great leveller for terrorist recruitment and the dissemination of knowledge. Learning about bomb-making online or the downloading of messages by radical preachers has become standard to the backstories of those who have committed recent atrocities. Greater levels of intelligence on those utilising such material online is clearly an imperative for UK national security.
Terrorist obsession with airplanes in the years after 9/11 saw counter-terrorism policy react accordingly (that's why you now can't take liquids on planes, have to have your shoes scanned, or maybe even stand in a whole body scanner). Now, low-tech 'marauding' attacks with vans and knifes have become common practice. Terrorists and counter-terrorists are caught in a perpetual 'action-reaction' cycle. In the wake of London Bridge, expect to see more bollards erected along pavements in major cities to prevent similar style attacks. An increase in the number of armed police is a responsive but not preventive measure. It took just eight minutes from the first 999 call to the three attackers in London being shot dead by police. This response time was extraordinary. Yet the real challenge remains building actionable intelligence that can lead to arrests before an attack takes place. The head of MI5 recently acknowledged that intelligence agencies had thwarted 12 terror plots in the UK in the last three years. But as the old former IRA Danny Morrison famously said, 'we only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky always'. UK national security needs more than just luck.
Dr Andrew Mumford is an associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations, and co-director of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism.