Moment that mattered: Five people are killed in a terror attack in London
It’s always hectic in the office on the day of an attack. Our immediate response to any incident is personal, and when we heard about the Westminster attack we wanted to ensure our friends and loved ones in London were okay. Then we focus on the technical aspects of the attack and the response, asking whether the right steps are being taken to protect people from a possible second wave of violence.
The response of the authorities in Westminster was excellent – the first responders were on site almost instantly and the first ambulance arrived within six minutes. Westminster is a classic terror target – terrorism is a battle over symbols, and terrorists want to demonstrate that even the heart of power is vulnerable. The authorities have plenty of experience of counter-terrorism in this part of London, especially in the 1980s and 1990s with the IRA. But defending against vehicle-ramming attacks like the one carried out by Khalid Masood is difficult as completely closing the area to cars isn’t viable. Perhaps future urban construction will incorporate more bollards or bumps to make it harder for cars to pick up speed in areas where large crowds gather.
“We’ve seen the right kind of reaction from the UK authorities to the recent attacks. There’s a focus on staying calm”
Terrorists adapt and learn. When putting bombs in luggage no longer worked, they used passengers like the 9/11 attackers. When that no longer works, they move on to something else. We started to see the vehicle-ramming tactic successfully used by Palestinian militants in Israel in 2008 and it was also used in Quebec in October 2014. Since then it’s been used in Berlin, Nice, where 86 people were killed; Stockholm, two weeks after the Westminster attack, and now the London Bridge attack of 3rd June. It’s a snowball effect.
The UK has now suffered four major attacks in less than three months following a period of 12 years without any. Have we entered a new phase of extremist groups targeting the UK? I’d say it’s likely that these four attacks will inspire further incidents. Look at France, which for many years had a reputation of being an almost unbreachable fortress. After the Charlie Hebdo attack of January 2015 the perception of France changed from strength to vulnerability.
That said, I think that we’ve seen the right reaction from the UK authorities. Cooler heads have prevailed and there’s a focus on staying calm, stressing that we won’t let them divide us, and not overreacting and imposing something along the lines of martial law. In 2016 Germany experienced three terror attacks and the government followed the protocol and responded calmly.
Several factors explain why the UK didn’t have any major attacks for almost 12 years after the 7th July 2005 attacks. Firstly, there’s the luck component – there were several failed attacks such as Glasgow Airport in 2007 in which only one of the perpetrators died. There have also been dozens of foiled terror attacks in the UK since 2005. Finally, after 2005 the UK invested a lot of money in counter-terrorism and the investment has paid off. But now the UK may appear vulnerable again.
How should we respond to an increased terror threat? Firstly, we must not get lost in the online whirlpool – there’s a lot of unreliable information out there. Also, we must not go overboard – we’ve had people asking us where they can buy bulletproof vests, for example. If you’re on a train on a hot summer’s day and the air conditioning breaks down and you’re wearing a bulletproof vest, the heatstroke will kill you before the terrorists do.
The best way to defeat terrorism is to promote the idea of acceptance to children. They should be told that people with a different skin colour or religious background are no different to them. You then begin to diffuse the factors of identity that are very appealing to extremists. But you’ll never fully defeat terrorism. It’s always been there. You just have to try to isolate the extremists.
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