LONDON — In bustling King’s Cross, a railway center in a city that depends on rail, life is continuing as normal. Travelers are hurrying to their trains, tourists are gawking at the Harry Potter Platform 9 and 3/4, and there are virtually no security checks or extra police in sight. It’s as if Saturday night’s terrorist attack — where three attackers armed with a rental van and knives killed at least seven and wounded 48 less than three miles away — didn’t happen.
But while life in London might seem normal to most residents of the city, things very much are not.
In a prepared speech on Sunday morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the still-unnamed attackers at London Bridge and Borough Market were Islamist extremists. She also confirmed that the attackers had no known links with the attackers in two other recent UK terrorist attacks — a van ramming pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in March and a suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in May.
“In terms of their planning and execution, the recent attacks are not connected,” she said. “But we believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face, as terrorism breeds terrorism, and perpetrators are inspired to attack not only on the basis of carefully-constructed plots after years of planning and training — and not even as lone attackers radicalized online — but by copying one another and often using the crudest of means of attack.”
Preventing this kind of attack is quite difficult. It’s hard to catch people who plan their attacks quickly and don’t communicate widely; you can’t stop someone from driving their car to a crowded area and ramming pedestrians.
“Terrorist groups now push out this methodology that you should use whatever the hell you have to hand to kill whoever the hell you can find,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a counter-terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank. “That makes it very difficult for security services to stay ahead of that.”
This is why the solutions May proposed in her speech — like cracking down on extremist activity on the internet — seem woefully inadequate to the threat. You cannot stop people from hearing about terrorist attacks by shutting down ISIS-linked Twitter accounts.
This means that London, and indeed the entire UK, is caught in the midst of a counterterrorism nightmare. Attacks like this one are happening more frequently, and they’re hard to stop. While Londoners are not yet panicking, the government appears to be weighing dubious responses.
Theresa May and Donald Trump are hyping up the threat
No organized terrorist group, ISIS or otherwise, has claimed the attackers in London. May would not say whether the attackers had a link to a broader cell in the UK, but she did say that it seems that the attack was at least inspired the previous two incidents. The prime minister sees this as the new face of terrorism in the UK, part of a broader ideological conflict with extremism. “There is — to be frank — far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” she says.
The Conservative May is in the midst of a surprisingly close reelection battle against the left-wing Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. The vote is on Thursday, so it’s hard not to see her comments in that light.
“It's election campaigning,” Peter Neumann, the director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London, says of her statement. “The stuff about extremism is what they [May’s Conservative Party] have been saying for years.”
Meanwhile, the president of the United States is hyping up fears, using the attack to justify his “Travel Ban” despite the fact that we have no idea about the attackers’ nationality:
We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 3, 2017
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don't get smart it will only get worse— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Trump is tapping into what’s scary about this kind of attack. While the absolute risk of these attacks are low — Pantucci says you have “more of a chance of dying in your car [by accident] than you do in in a terrorist incident” — they could in theory hit anywhere. There is nothing to prevent King’s Cross, or any other major hub, from becoming the site of the next London attack.
Preventing that kind of widespread panic is a vital counterterrorism goal. But in the midst of a UK election, and with the American president hyping things up, there’s no guarantee that this will continue to remain successful.
Why this kind of terrorism is nearly impossible to stop
The truth is that the basic mode of attack used in London — ramming a crowded area with a vehicle, then getting out and stabbing anyone you can find — could easily be executed with no direction from experienced militants. All it takes is a car, a knife, and homicidal intent.
This kind of attack can be executed with no direct communication with a major terrorist group, and thus is very difficult to stop.
“[Counter-terrorism] professionals have wondered for over a decade why we haven't seen more terror attacks like this. But now that they've arrived, they're not going away any time soon,” explains Will McCants, an expert on terrorism at the Brookings Institution. “They are low tech and uncomplicated but attract as much attention as more sophisticated attacks — a win-win for terrorists. There's just no way to stop them if a person is not part of a known group.”
Take Israel. In the past several years, there has been a spate of terrorist attacks in which individual Palestinian motorists have run down civilians or Israeli army soldiers. The Israeli security establishment, one of the most effective in the world, cannot seem to predict these attacks or stop them from happening.
Why is it so hard? Simple attacks, disconnected from any international or well-known terrorist cell, give off few of the signatures that would help detect the attack in advance.
To disrupt a terrorist plot, law enforcement and intelligence agencies need intelligence: an informer with knowledge of the plot, intercepted communications between the plotters, etc. It’s hard to catch that if people are acting alone, or in a tight-knit group that doesn’t contain anyone under police surveillance.
That doesn’t make this kind of plot impossible to catch, mind you.
Pantucci says that even so-called lone wolves generally tell at least one person what they’re planning on doing. If that person goes to law enforcement, then they can be caught. Indeed, May claimed in her address that the UK intelligence services and police have disrupted five terrorist plots in the past three months.
We don’t yet know if the London attackers had any accomplices or simply acted on their own. But regardless, their methodology is very simple to copy. The similarities between the London Bridge and Westminster Bridge attack — both involving motorists running down pedestrians on a bridge — suggest that they are, in fact, being copied.
British intelligence communities can’t catch every person with violent intent and a car. And the more successful incidents there are, the more likely they are to inspire copycats.
The British are remaining calm — so far
Lower-level attacks like the one in London, or even the bombing in Manchester, are not designed to cripple a country. The goal, instead, is psychological: The intent is, quite literally, to terrorize. To make anyone think that, at any moment, they might not be safe — that they could be next.
"Terrorism is not necessarily about the number of people you kill; it's about the terror you create,” Neumann said during a previous discussion about this kind of attack. “Lone actors have the capacity to create a lot of mayhem, a lot of polarization, and a lot of division."
There are any number of reasons that jihadist might want to create this kind of panic. It could be revenge, punishing Britain for its participation in the coalition against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It could be strategic — provoking British politicians into crackdowns on Muslim rights that would fuel the jihadists’ narrative of a civilizational war on Islam, thus strengthening their recruiting. It could be economic, to terrify tourists and investors and thus damage the British economy. It could simply be blind anger; that these people hate Western societies and want to lash out against them.
We still aren’t clear on which, if any, of these motivations apply to the London Bridge attack. But so far, there was no evidence of mass panic anywhere I visited in London.
Central London just hours after the attack on Saturday felt like business as usual. Bars and clubs were filled; the Underground was packed with people trying to get home from a night on the town. Sunday morning, I listened to an American guide tell a group of young students that the attack would not affect their plan to go on an eight-hour tour of the city.
But this attack, in the wake of the bombing in Manchester and the eerily similar ramming attack on Westminster Bridge, may well fuel some kind of reaction from the British government — and perhaps not necessarily a productive one.
“The British are resilient,” Richard Walton, the former head of the London Police’s counterterrorism unit, tweeted on Sunday. “But 34 killed & 214 injured in 3 terror attacks in under 3 months is testing tolerance.”
May’s internet censorship proposal won’t stop terrorism
Take May’s speech, for example. Her one concrete proposal was restricting internet freedom in order to prevent the spread of jihadist ideology.
“We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed. Yet that is precisely what the internet — and the big companies that provide internet-based services — provide,” she said. “We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning.”
McCants calls this idea “quixotic,” in that you can’t possibly crack down on every source of hate online. But it seems to be a deep-seated goal of May’s: It echoes a bill that she has been pushing for more than two years to crack down on “extremist” ideology both online and in the physical world. The law would give authorities sweeping new powers, like the ability to close down organizations that they deemed to be preaching anti-democratic extremism. Not preaching violence, mind you — simply political extremism.
This legislation was seen by many in the British press as a dire threat to free speech rights, as it’s not clear who would be swept up in it. And it has been unable to pass for the past two years for just this reason, despite Conservative control of Parliament.
“They've tried for two years to pass a counter extremism bill but couldn't define extremism in a legally watertight way,” Neumann explains.
Experts say that the best way to fight back against this kind of attack is to avoid rash decision-making and civil liberty restrictions, allow security services to continue their work, and carefully assess whether there are any weaknesses in the UK policing system that allowed this attack to get through.
But terrorism is designed to prevent precisely this kind of calm consideration. It’s especially powerful during an election cycle, when politicians have a strong interest in showing that they can be tough on terrorism.
“You can already see the discussion starting to shift into more of a security space,” Pantucci says. “Whenever you start to make these sorts of decisions and think about these sorts of issues in the heat of an election campaign, when people are politicking quite aggressively, that’s probably the worst time to do it.”
London itself may seem normal. But the drumbeat of attacks may already be starting to have major effects on the UK’s political situation — ones with far-reaching, potentially dangerous consequences.