Can Attacks Like London Bridge Be Stopped?
Must we live our lives in fear, or behind walls, or both? Britain will likely become the testing ground for a new wave of tough counterterror measures.
PARIS—For a year and a half now, we have seen again and again terrorists attacking beautiful places where innocent people go to share beautiful moments. They have hit sidewalk cafés and a concert hall in Paris, a seaside celebration of Bastille Day in Nice, a nightclub in Orlando, a Christmas market in Berlin, a shopping street in Stockholm, an auditorium filled with children and teens in Manchester, and, now, for the second time in less than three months, a bridge across the Thames in London—before going on a rampage among pubs and restaurants.
What can possibly be done to protect such places, all of them symbols in different ways of our personal and collective freedom? Must we live our lives in fear, or behind walls, or both?
Obviously that is the terrorists’ ambition, and not only because they are “evil losers,” to use President Donald Trump’s phrase, but because behind the violent jihadists is a clear program with defined goals. Georgetown University’s Bruce Hoffman calls it “terrorism as a strategy of provocation.” It’s what old-school communist revolutionaries used to talk about as the “politique du pire” or exacerbating the contradictions: make things as bad as possible; make people turn on each other who had been living peaceably together, then the way will be open to civil war and revolution.
That is precisely the goal articulated years ago by jihadist ideologue Abu Musab al-Siri, who knew after provocations in the name of Islam he could rely on the reaction of racists and extremists of the far right, like the white supremacist terrorist who murdered two men in Portland, Oregon, last month. It’s important, as French President Emmanuel Macron warned during his campaign, not to fall into that trap. (That is exactly what Trump does every time he tweets about his Muslim “Travel Ban,” as he did in the wake of Saturday night’s tragedy.)
Knowing that provocation is the jihadist strategy does not, in itself, make any of us safer at an outdoor concert or street fair, nor attenuate the heightened fears that can, by themselves, provoke panic and pain. An example of that came Saturday night before the attack in London, when a loud noise and frantic talk of a bomb stampeded a huge crowd in Turin, Italy, that was watching a championship soccer match on a big screen in the middle of the city. More than 1,400 people were injured, and a little boy trampled there is now fighting for his life.
What’s needed to build public confidence is a sense that the authorities themselves have well defined strategies that can work not in the theoretical long term, but in the middle term, and the immediate future.
Britain, by dint of its successive tragedies, now looks to be the testing ground for new approaches.
When British Prime Minister Theresa May spoke to the nation on Sunday, she suggested a radical change in the offing. There is “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” she said, embracing a viewpoint held by many counterterrorism experts on the Continent who have long been puzzled by Britain’s acceptance and indeed encouragement of cloistered Muslim neighborhoods and societies.
No European country has done a particularly good job of integrating its Muslim population. France still officially pretends that if you are a citizen, the state has no interest in your religion, ethnicity or antecedents—while discrimination in housing patterns and employment is rampant. And the history of jihad in France—and by hundreds of French citizens in the ranks of the so-called Islamic State—is a grim one.
But Gilles Kepel, the author of Terror in France, notes that in Britain the attempts by the state to cooperate with and to some extent coopt Muslim communities by allowing and encouraging their separateness, and sometimes by deferring to religious leaders who are Islamist and extremist, has now shown itself to be a conspicuous failure as well.
Prime Minister May, it appears, would agree. “We need to become far more robust in identifying [extremism] and stamping it out—across the public sector and across society,” she said on Sunday. “That will require some difficult and often embarrassing conversations, but the whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism—and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities but as one truly United Kingdom.”
The risk is that by pushing for this kind of unity at this point in time, the British government seems to be changing the rules of the game, and will only exacerbate the deep contradictions in British society.
It will fall to the police and intelligence services to provide the next line of defense with surveillance of known and potential jihadist groups, interception of their communications—among them chats on encrypted apps such as Telegram, if possible—and penetration of their organizations, including their religious organizations, with informers and undercover officers. Much of this is being done already, but stepping up such activities risks deepening mistrust between the government and its Muslim citizens.
So be it, at least in Britain. May’s statement suggests that after three attacks in three months, she no longer believes the cooperation of local community leaders is adequate to keep Britons safe. They must subscribe to liberal Western values, which sounds good to liberal Westerners, but will strike many who come from traditional societies as an affront to their core identity.
In the near term, none of the above will make you or me feel safer crossing London Bridge or going to a concert in Manchester.
For the kind of measures necessary to feel safe—or safer—in a terror-fraught environment, analysts tend to look to the Israelis, who take measures that would have seemed draconian in Europe only a few years ago but, now, not so much.
Daily Beast contributor Neri Zilber, based in Israel, sketches the approach succinctly.
In the realm of offensive measures, he notes, “It’s not PC, but since the start of unrest in late 2015 the Israeli security services data-mined for profiles of the attackers on social media and then pre-empted.”
In the realm of still more offensive measures, says Zilber: “Administrative detentions and aggressive arrests to disrupt operations. It's a legal and above all intel-heavy approach.”
Georgetown’s Bruce Hoffman likens such actions to the Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” in which criminals are arrested before they commit a crime, and possibly before they even think about it. But talk of “preemption” is no longer taboo in counter-terror circles. According to Kepel, carefully calibrated offensive measures such as these already are under way in France.
When it comes to defensive measures in Israel, as Zilber notes, in high profile and high target areas there are bollards— those increasingly ubiquitous barriers made of concrete or steel that are meant to stop cars from crashing through gates or onto sidewalks. “So, in Jerusalem it's bollards at light rail stations, in the West Bank it's concrete barriers at bus stops on the highways. Also, historically, at government installations. Can't put them everywhere, but they cut down on lethality.”
Alain Bauer, a criminologist and counter-terror advisor to several French governments, notes that Paris has long had multiple obstacles to stop cars from mounting the sidewalks—and to keep people from parking on them. But there certainly will be more bollards, and in Nice, scene of the horrific truck attack last July that slaughtered 86 innocent people and the driver, the wide sidewalk of the Promenade des Anglais is being raised and obstructions established to make sure nothing like that can happen again. One can expect similar measures on the sidewalks of London’s bridges.
But Bauer says that protecting spaces with a last-ditch static line of defense is not enough. The point is to protect the people going to beautiful places to share beautiful moments, or just going about their daily lives, and that requires a dynamic defense.
At a big event, says Bauer, “A guy at the entrance is just a small obstacle.” Security must look at the crowd, move among the people, observe behavior, look for the “tells” shown by even the most poker-faced terrorist. It does no good at all to have a few narrow entrances where a long line forms waiting to go through security. “You create a queue, and by trying to protect the target you create a bigger one,” says Bauer.
Finally, it has to be said that nobody in the counter-terror field believes that any measures will deliver 100 percent security. “There is that 1 percent you will never catch,” says Bauer.
So the final line of defense, as Zilber put it, and the British have believed for a very long time, is to “keep calm and carry on.” It’s going to be a long fight, but social and cultural resilience are the greatest way to defy terrorists, and ultimately may be the key to defeating them.