London struck by terror, again
Merely days after the horrific bombing in Manchester, the United Kingdom witnessed its third terror attack since March on Saturday, when a non-descript van swerved off the road and mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge. A total of seven people were killed and 48 injured. Soon after this horrific episode, the van drove to the Borough Market in London, a popular tourist destination, and three armed men stepped out of the vehicle. As per eyewitness accounts, these assailants began attacking pedestrians with knives. One was reportedly seen charging towards a bar packed with people.
Before these assailants could inflict any further harm, armed personnel from the London Metropolitan Police responded quickly to the scene and gunned them down. The attack took place merely five days before parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom on June 8. British Prime Minister Theresa May, however, reassured voters that elections would go ahead as per schedule. "It is time to say enough is enough," she expressed in a televised statement. "We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are." There were calls for tougher counter-terror measures that could include longer jail sentences for certain offences and more stringent cyberspace regulations, even though the British government has aggressively monitored Muslims it believes could orchestrate attacks. In fact, a leading UK news publication reported earlier this year that British intelligence is actively surveilling 23,000 potential jihadists. Her opponent in the elections and leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, responded that the UK needs to have "some difficult conversations" with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, saying they have "funded and fuelled extremist ideology". "We have to get serious about cutting off the funding to these terror networks, including ISIS here and in the Middle East," Corbyn said. There are two aspects of the attack that this editorial would like to address—the London police's quick response, and the hypocrisy of Western governments in dealing with the threat of Islamist extremism.
Reports indicate that it took the London Metropolitan Police just eight minutes from the start of the London Bridge attack to neutralise the three terrorists. By any measure, this is a reflection of the great speed and effectiveness with which the police responded to a live terror attack and ended the atrocity before it escalated any further. Their success on Saturday was down to learning from similar terror-related incidents in the past, rigorous training and the necessary resources. London is no stranger to terrorist attacks, from the IRA-orchestrated bombing in 1993 to the 7/7 bombings in 2005.
However, what has changed since then is the nature of terror attacks. Counter-terror experts marked the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks (2008) and Paris attacks in December 2015 as seminal events in establishing a new template for such future acts of barbarism. In the age of increased cyber surveillance, it is tough for terrorists to pull off a 9/11-style of attack. Instead, small units of mobile, yet heavily armed and motivated attackers are unleashed on vulnerable public spaces with the aim of killing as many people as possible while causing chaos and mayhem in these areas. For security professionals, this is a nightmarish scenario.
Fortunately, for London, its police have spent years preparing for such an incident ever since the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. There was also an element of luck too as Saturday's assailants reportedly did not carry any firearms with them. Nonetheless, the skills they had acquired over the years did serve them well in responding quickly to this act of terror. Security professionals contend that the London police undertook several anti-terror exercises simulating terror attacks. One such simulation involved a scenario in which armed individuals unleash terror on a shopping mall. In these exercises, the emphasis was on responding to the terror threat as fast as possible without actually taking into cognizance their own safety or even tending to injured civilians. Speed is of the essence.
Finally, of course, it's also about the resources to take on such security threats. There is an apparent escalation in the deployment of armed police officers, allied with ammunition and vehicles, following Saturday's events. Once known for its unarmed police, the city of London is now on lockdown. Despite all these measures, there remains a strong element of chance and surprise associated with such attacks that the police cannot entirely legislate for. "The terrorism situation in the UK is clearly in flux. At the moment, the only pattern when it comes to terrorist attacks is that there is no pattern. Last night's London attack appears to be in some ways a combination of the Westminster attack and the Lee Rigby murder. It differs greatly from the style of the May 22 Manchester attack.
Nonetheless, members of the police will continue to prepare to deal with worst-case scenarios based on previous attacks that, undoubtedly, they hope will never materialise," wrote Steve Hewitt, a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History, University of Birmingham, in a recent column for The Conversation. On expected lines, the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Saturday's attack. "A detachment of Islamic State fighters executed yesterday's London attack," said a statement posted on the militant group's Amaq media agency website. It is no secret that the Saudi Kingdom, backed by the supply of American arms, has played a pivotal role in aiding the surge of extremist Sunni ideologies and terror modules across the region, extending all the way to the Indian subcontinent. In 2014, Wikileaks released a 2014 email from Hillary Clinton, acknowledging that US-backed regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported transnational terror groups like the Islamic State.
"We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL and other radical Sunni groups in the region," the document states, ignoring the fact that Washington played a pivotal role in spawning the creation of ISIS. In fact, in another leaked email, Clinton also admits that "the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years." It is imperative to note that when it comes to hobnobbing with the Saudi regime, both Republicans and Democrats are equal offenders, as recent Wikileaks disclosures suggest. Closer to home, the Arabian kingdom is also a primary source of funds for Islamist militant groups like the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Nonetheless, both the British and American establishment continues to sell arms and buy oil from the Saudi kingdom, allowing it to further fuel atrocities in war-torn nations like Yemen. In fact, reports indicate that the British government is suppressing an inquiry commissioned by May's predecessor, David Cameron, looking into the foreign funding of extremist Islamist groups.
Given that the British government just signed £3.5 billion (US$4.51 billion) worth of arms export licenses to Saudi Arabia, the suppression of the report's findings is nothing short of a scandal. "While Saudi Arabia spends countless millions promoting fear of Iran to distract from its global export of Wahhabism — which inspires the extremist ideology of Al Qaeda, the so-called Islamic State and many other terrorist groups wreaking havoc from Karachi to Manchester — Iran has been aiding the victims of extremism in Iraq and Syria," says Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javed Zarif, in a column for The New York Times. It's time the British government acknowledged this fact, reconfigures its relationship with dictatorial regimes sponsoring extremist ideologies and groups to get to the heart of the matter. More surveillance will mean nothing without and requisite follow-up measures on foreign policy.