Raymond Whitaker examines the implications of the latest Islamist attack on a Western target, this time in the heart of the British capital
Shocking as the March 22 terrorism attack in London was, it was not unexpected. The British authorities had constantly warned that it was a case of when one would come, not if, and when it did, it was the hardest kind to stop: a lone, apparently self-radicalised attacker using weapons no more sophisticated than a hired 4×4 vehicle and a pair of knives.
The assault by British-born Khalid Masood caused the deaths of four people – three pedestrians mowed down on Westminster Bridge as he mounted the pavement and sped towards Parliament, and a policeman he stabbed to death at the vehicle entrance used by ministers and MPs – before he was himself shot dead. It was the worst terrorism incident in Britain since the July 2005 suicide bombings on the Underground and a London bus, killing 52 people along with the bombers.
News coverage tended to question how such an attack could have occurred near one of the most symbolic and heavily-guarded targets in Britain, but short of turning the centre of London into a fortress and denying the public access to their elected representatives, it is impossible to eliminate the threat completely. Masood must have known that he would not survive what was in effect a suicide attack, and those are the most difficult to prevent.
Islamic State quickly claimed that Masood was their ‘soldier’, but that did not mean the Islamist organisation had had any contact with him. Unlike the 2005 bombings, there was no immediate distribution of a ‘martyrdom’ video pledging allegiance to international jihadism, and justifying the action he was about to take. Despite a number of arrests, and the fact that Masood sent an encrypted WhatsApp text just before mounting his assault, there were very few signs of a prior plot that it might have been possible for the security services to detect. Within days the police said that they believed he had been acting alone.
As in many previous such cases, it emerged that Masood had come to the attention of MI5 in the past, but had appeared peripheral. Decisions must constantly be made on where to direct anti-terrorism efforts, and resources simply do not allow the internal security service to maintain constant surveillance of hundreds of suspects who might commit violent acts. Keeping a 24-hour watch on a suspect who does not adhere to established routines can require as many as 30 officers. Someone who has self-radicalised and acts alone is particularly hard to detect if they do not communicate with accomplices, or attempt to obtain firearms or explosives.
In the days following the attack, much of the information about Masood appeared wearily familiar to terrorism analysts. Like a disproportionate number of Islamist extremists, he was a Muslim convert, named Adrian Elms at birth. He was of mixed race – unremarkable in any British city, but less common in the rural areas of southern England where he grew up, where he was the only person who was not white in his school photographs.
Experiences of racism may have contributed to identity problems and a volatile personality, exacerbated by drugs. Masood’s first conviction was for criminal damage, when he was 18, and he went on to serve two jail terms for knife attacks. It seems that his conversion to Islam took place in jail – again, a common theme among those who go on to stage terror attacks. In some cases, their radicalisation appears an attempt to atone for a life of criminality, abuse of drink and drugs, and violence, including sexual violence. But in others, perpetrators make no effort to change their ways, right up to the moment they become a suicide attacker.
What was unusual about Masood was his age, 52. By the time he came out of jail for the second time he was nearly 40, when most angry young men have calmed down. He spent two stints as an English teacher in Saudi Arabia, a common path followed by converts to Islam. It is possible that he was radicalised there, but he had been back in Britain for several years without having fallen foul of the authorities.
As investigators sought to piece together the story of a restless, violent man who ended his own life and those of four others in a welter of blood, there was considerable speculation about what further security measures might be needed. Tighter security around Parliament was demanded; one retired official even suggested that all the country’s policemen should be armed. But the measures put in place since 2005 have largely worked.
First and foremost, Britain’s stringent gun controls have prevented the kind of slaughter that took place in Paris in 2015, when 130 people were killed in a single evening. In this attack, as in 2013, when an off-duty soldier was run down and hacked to death in a south London street, the only weapons Islamist extremists in Britain have been able to lay their hands on at short notice have been vehicles and knives.
Given that fact, some have questioned why the authorities often dwell on, and train for, more exotic threats such as the possible use of a ‘dirty bomb’. In the days before Masood’s crude assault, attention was focused on a new ban announced by Britain and the US on electronic devices on direct flights from a number of Middle Eastern countries. Passengers may keep their smartphones, but anything larger – such as laptops, tablets and cameras – must be put into checked-in baggage, which will be carried in the airliner’s hold. There was no explanation for this, but counter-terrorism agencies insist that for every attack like the one on Westminster, a dozen other plots have been thwarted.
And as Islamic State is pushed back in Iraq and Syria, with the largest city under its control, Mosul, slipping from its grasp and enemies closing in on its ‘capital’, Raqqa, it will seek revenge by using its undoubted media skills on the internet, urging sympathisers to retaliate any way they can. Britain saw no need to raise the official threat level following the latest bloodshed. It remains at severe – which means further attacks are expected.