LONDON—Londoners fought back against a gang of jihadi killers on Saturday night with whatever they could lay their hands on—including bottles, chairs and tables—one taxi driver said he had even tried to run down a marauding terrorist with his car.
These members of the public, and a police officer armed only with a baton, helped limit the fatalities to seven during a rampage that lasted just eight minutes before heavily armed specialist officers took out the attackers in a hail of around 50 bullets.
In a speech from Downing Street on Sunday, Prime Minister Theresa May vowed her own fightback with new counter-terrorism measures and a crackdown on extremism, which she said had been tolerated for too long.
This time, the message on the morning after a terrorist attack was not simply, ‘Keep calm and carry on.’
May’s criticism of the current counter-terror strategy surprised sections of the law enforcement community, however, since she was largely responsible for the crafting and implementation of the strategy during six years in charge of the police and security services as Home Secretary.
“Enough is enough,” she said. “When it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.”
No specific policy changes were detailed but May said it was time to crackdown on Islamist extremism and internet freedom after a third devastating attack on Britain in three months.
“There is—to be frank—far too much tolerance of extremism in our country. So we need to become far more robust in identifying it and stamping it out,” she said. “United we will take on and defeat our enemies.”
On Saturday, there were less than ten minutes between the first emergency services call and the moment eight Metropolitan Police officers discharged 50 rounds—an unprecedented number of bullets fired by British law enforcement officers—to take out three men they believed were wearing explosive devices. The suicide vests proved to be hoaxes.
Seven people who were out partying on a Saturday night were killed by the gang, who have not yet been publicly identified. A further 21 people remain in a critical condition in hospitals across London.
A Blue Thunder special forces unit was deployed for its first live mission on the streets of London during the rampage—signaling a new era of increased British military response to the terror threat.
The SAS commando units, who are able to rappel from unmarked helicopters directly into areas under attack, have direct experience of carrying out similar kill missions in conflict zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In the latest incident, civilian police officers trained by their SAS colleagues were able to extinguish the threat before the military was required to intervene.
Members of the security community said the armed response on Saturday had been exemplary but called for an increase in the number of police and intelligence officers. Drastic cuts to the police funding during May’s time at the Home Office mean there are now fewer armed officers than there were in 2010.
A former Northern Ireland police intelligence officer, who has helped the Pentagon train new police forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, told the Daily Beast that the fightback against terrorists should begin with restoring investment in the police. “Recruiting more police officers works, it's as simple as that,” said William Matchett.
He said intelligence officers would like to see increased powers, particularly to circumvent privacy laws and allow further monitoring with less bureaucracy. “Intelligence needs a bit more clout,” he said. “The trick is getting the intelligence system working to be more proactive.”
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson followed May’s intervention with an apparent call for more radical intrusion into Britain’s Muslim communities. “To those who sympathize or encourage or harbor or aid or abet these killers—in any way—we say enough is enough,” he wrote. “Your time is up. The wells of tolerance are running empty.”
Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham who contributed to the parliamentary Homeland Security Group, said the Conservative government’s sudden appetite for tougher measures had not been matched by their record in office.
He said there should be an increase in intelligence officers within the police and that MI5 should be doubled in size, from fewer than 4,000 officers, in order to deal with a secret army of 23,000 jihadi extremists living in Britain.
On Sunday, May repeated the Tory election pledge to attempt to control pro-jihadi content on the internet. “We need to work with allied, democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremism and terrorist planning,” she said.
After claiming that campaigning for this week’s general election had been suspended, May was criticized for including her policy offer in her first speech after London’s most deadly terror attack since 2005.
Glees is more concerned about her ability to enact the policy. “There are plenty of good ideas, but they don't know how to deliver these ideas,” he said. “How can Theresa May deliver on taking down toxic websites when the internet countries are not subject to British law?”
Glees has long advocated for a more comprehensive counter-extremist strategy. For example, he criticized May’s decision to end the control order system, which was introduced under Tony Blair’s Labour government. These orders allowed individuals to be closely monitored and forcibly relocated within Britain if the authorities believed they were a threat to the public.
"A lot of people are surprised that we don't have control orders. Well, we don't have them because Theresa May abolished them,” Glees told The Daily Beast. "She said we've got to recalibrate the balance between liberty and security towards liberty."
After three major attacks in the first year of May’s premiership, that might be about to change.