Preliminary thoughts on the London attacks

Residents of London have undergone yet another terrorist attack.  The nation that survived countless IRA attacks and threats in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and which saw the carnage of July 2005 and the attempted beheading of a military member in Woolwich in 2013 is reeling from yesterday’s events where a man ran over people on Westminster Bridge and attempted to rush Parliament armed with a knife before police shot him dead.  As of the time of writing four are dead and approximately 40 are injured, several seriously.

The UK government is proceeding cautiously with its comments so far, preferring to allow the investigation time to run and do its job. What we do know so far is that the alleged assailant was known to MI5, the UK’s CSIS, and that Islamic State has already called the terrorist a ‘soldier of IS‘.  From that we can assume that this attack was carried out by an Islamist extremist, although we must acknowledge that more information is required to be definitive.

Nevertheless, there are a number of aspects to this attack that should be highlighted:

  • the modus operandi is reminiscent of a pattern of  late.  Trucks or vehicles have been used to mow down crowds in Berlin, Nice and on the campus of Ohio State University.  Knives were used in an attack on a mall in Minnesota, the stabbing of a man in Sydney and by many terrorists in the West Bank and Jerusalem.  The combination should be familiar to Canadians: Martin Couture Rouleau ran down two members of the Canadian Armed Forces on October 20, 2014 (killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent) before rushing police with a knife before being shot dead.  Vehicles and knives are primitive terrorist devices and the ultimate ‘dual-use’ articles.  Their use underscores how hard it is to prevent all attacks.
  • it should not be surprising that the UK has been hit again.  MI5 has stated publicly that it is aware of 10,000 people who have become ‘radicalised’.  No agency can monitor 1000 people, let alone 10,000.  The fact that this man was ‘known to MI5’ is not proof of a ‘failure of intelligence’ as many ill-informed pseudo experts will bray, but merely demonstrates how difficult counter terrorism really is.  MI5 and its partners have foiled 50 plots in recent years and to expect 100% success is fantasy.
  • the choice of target was most likely not random.  The UK Parliament is an iconic site and a huge tourist attraction (not to mention the inspiration for my country’s parliament).  More importantly, it is a symbol of democracy and Islamist extremists HATE democracy, seeing it as un-Islamic and sinful. Again, shades of why Michael Zehaf-Bibeau elected to try to enter Centre Block in Ottawa on October 22, 2014 before he too was shot dead.
  • there is no surprise that IS has claimed the London terrorist as one of their own.  They tend to do that irrespective of any real link.  We will hopefully learn more in the days and weeks to come but I would be astonished if the terrorist was not at a minimum inspired by groups such as IS.

In the immediate aftermath of this loss of life, perspective is important.  Yes, this is a tragic event and lessons will be learned, but terrorism remains a rare event in the West.  We need to emulate the British ‘stiff upper lip’ and more of ‘Keep calm and carry on’ and less of the bizarre Islamophobic rant made by that clown (former English Defence League leader) Tommy Robinson at the murder scene.  It is too easy to allow ourselves to be afraid and react irrationally in the wake of such an incident but we need to stiffen our resolve.  Terrorists seek to instill terror and fear and we cannot permit them to claim victory in this regard.  We are better than them.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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