The uncomfortable repercussions of the London terrorist attack

The simple truth is that there are no simple answers on what to do with terrorists: let’s stop pretending there are.

The simple truth is that there are no simple answers on what to do with terrorists: let’s stop pretending there are.

Here we go again. London has been hit with a terrorist attack. This time a man with a knife went on a spree on London Bridge, stabbing wildly at the crowds. In all five people were hit and two died, a man and a woman. The assailant was killed minutes later by police.

This was at least the second time an incident of this nature occurred on the iconic site. The previous one took place in 2017, scarcely two and a half years ago, and that one as much more serious, killing eight and wounding 48.

The list sadly goes on and on

To that we must add a litany of other attacks in the city: Manchester (2017), Westminster Bridge (also 2017), Woolich (2013), the list sadly goes on and on. All carried out by Islamist extremists living in the UK.

This latest horror has some interesting- and critical – characteristics. The perpetrator was wearing a fake suicide vest. As many others have commented already online this tactic was meant to cause even more fear and panic and virtually guaranteed the terrorist would be shot and killed (‘suicide by cop’). Islamic State (ISIS) and other groups have advocated this modus operandi.

We have also seen fake vests before: the London Bridge attackers wore them. But there is a much more serious side to this crime: the perpetrator had earlier served time for terrorism offences (convicted in 2012) and was released a year ago. He was supposed to wear an electronic tag and have his movements monitored, among other conditions.

Canadians have seen this before

ISIS fan Aaron Driver was subject to similar restrictions when he built and detonated a bomb in the small town of Strathroy, Ontario in 2016. He was known to authorities and had been placed on a peace bond. And yet he still carried out a terrorist attack in which thankfully no one died.

The London attack raises difficult questions:

  • Should we release terrorists – ever?
  • How can we manage these people in our criminal justice system? Are conditions enough for release?
  • How can law enforcement and security intelligence agencies monitor these people 24/7? The UK has 23,000 such people it worries about and cannot obviously watch them all.
Returning foreign terrorist fighters

There is one other obvious issue here and it has to do with the so-called ‘returning foreign terrorist fighters’, i.e. those who joined ISIS and other groups and are now crying to come home.

I and many others have gone on public record to say we have neither the obligation, nor interest, in making this happen. Criminals who commit their offences abroad should do their time abroad. Bad decisions by people who thought joining ISIS was a good idea have consequences, as they should.

Those who advocate facilitated return do not appreciate the implications of their views. Returnees must at a minimum be monitored. Monitoring takes resources- lot of resources. The lesson from London is stark: we simply do not have the manpower to adequately monitor everyone.

No, not all returnees will go on to commit acts of terrorism. But some most definitely will. One successful act is one too many. One innocent life lost is one too many. Our public will never forgive a government that allows this to happen.

So, in the end, we need to rethink how we handle terrorists. And we need to stop pretending we can manage returnees.

Let them stay where they are.

When Religion Kills: How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

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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