Some thoughts on the London Bridge attack

The third attack in the UK in a little over two months has people panicking, and not just in Great Britain.  On March 22 a man ran over people on Westminster Bridge in downtown London, killing three and wounding 50, before exiting his car and stabbing an unarmed police officer near Parliament before he was shot dead.  Two months later a suicide bomber targeted an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, killing 23 and injuring 59.  Most recently, last Saturday evening (June 3), three men in a van barrelled down London Bridge, killing 7, including one Canadian, and wounding 48.  The terrorists were not satisfied with their vehicle attack but also leapt from their vehicle and stabbed several people before they too were gunned down, eight minutes into their killing spree.  Interestingly, they were wearing what looked like suicide vests: these turned out to be fake.

There has been a lot of analysis since Saturday and a great deal of speculation as to what all this means.  Here is my contribution to the pile.

First and foremost we really have to stop examining acts of terrorism as if every incident is the harbinger of a ‘trend’.  Seconds after Westminster everyone noted that the use of trucks/cars was new.  Then Manchester was interpreted as a return to the old style of suicide bombs.  Now with London Bridge we are back to vehicles.  The unfortunate truth is that terrorism today fits the category of ‘all of the above’.  Security intelligence and law enforcement agencies don’t waste their time following the newest analysis: they prepare for all eventualities simultaneously.  Remember aircraft?  They were supposed to be yesterday’s focus after 9/11 and the hardening of security.  Except that the terrorists didn’t notice our analysis as seen in the ‘shoebomber’ plot, the ‘underwear bomber’ incident, the liquids plot, the cartridge plot and the newest laptop plot.  So much for been there done that.

Secondly, it looks as if one of the London Bridge assailants was married with children.  This of course flies in the face of everyone’s conviction that these terrorists are misfits, alienated drifters or ‘evil losers’ to quote US President Trump.  I don’t know how many times those of us who have actually examined case data have to say this (clearly our message is not getting through): there is NO profile of a terrorist so stop creating one.  CSIS does not rely on false models and nor should the public.

Thirdly as one of the attackers was ‘known’ to authorities everyone wants to know why he was not monitored/neutralised/arrested…  I have written on this ad nauseum and will simply remind my readers that no service anywhere can investigate every person made known to them.

Fourthly, even if this is the third attack in a little more than two months it does not take away the fact that MI5 and its partners thwart the vast majority of plots.  Without their professional efforts there would be thousands dead and wounded, not dozens.

Lastly we are at risk of handing victory to terrorists through our panicked reaction to what is happening.  Yes we must always get better in our responses to acts (it took eight minutes for London police to kill these terrorists: that’s pretty damn good in my books!) and in identifying those going down the path at an earlier stage. But no, terrorism is neither a frequent event nor an existential threat to our society.  Don’t exaggerate their capability and don’t give them the satisfaction of seeing that they have frightened us.  They don’t deserve it.

As  I offer the families and friends of the deceased my thoughts and prayers and wish those injured a speedy recovery I remind all of us that the Brits have it right: we need to keep calm and carry on.

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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