Much has been made in recent years about Europe’s lack of readiness to stop terrorist attacks and its failure to make the shift to a more aggressive, Israel-style, mentality for fighting the phenomenon, even at the price of some impingements on civil liberties.
Is British security up to Israeli standards and was Wednesday’s terrorist attack in London stoppable? Or was it in the category of lone wolf attacks that even Israel’s aggressive security apparatus cannot completely stop?
Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies scholar Yaakov Amidror, a former National Security Council chief, told The Jerusalem Post
that “England has lots of experience with terrorism, unlike others in Europe with terrorism, both domestic and elsewhere. It has lots of experience.”
He said “the critical question was whether the attack[er] was really a lone wolf or part of a bigger network. If he was part of a bigger network, then you can ask why there was not an intelligence warning? But if he was a lone wolf, even with us, these things happen. You cannot stop them all.”
Amidror was then asked about Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) Director Nadav Argaman’s statement to the Knesset earlier in the week that his agency has thwarted more than 400 lone wolf attacks.
He responded, “We [in Israel] came to this after a very long wave of attacks. It took a while to get there. England’s problem is more complex. The people who are doing it [terrorism] do not fit the characteristic profile [of attackers]. With us, there is a distinct profile.”
The former NSC chief did note that the London terrorist had been questioned before and said that Israel may be more aggressive than the UK about arresting some persons even before there is strong evidence of a crime, such as in the use of administrative detention, but that generally Britain was strong on confronting terrorism.
Another element of the attack was that the terrorist succeeded in entering Parliament’s grounds through gates to the New Palace Yard, one section that, unlike most spots there, does not have a “ring of steel” around it.
Amidror said that for guarding special locations like the British Parliament a balance of physical and human security was necessary, and a lack in either area could cause problems. At the same time, he said Israel should not be criticizing Britain, as it generally does a good job.
Yoram Schweitzer, of the Institute for National Security Studies and a former counter-terrorism adviser to the prime minister, said that “if someone uses a car to ram people without any prior knowledge from the intelligence services or the police – something that basic can be mitigated, but cannot be prevented.”
Schweitzer said administrative detention was not relevant to the issue since if “neither the intelligence apparatus nor the police can prove someone is dangerous and they are no immediate threat, then there could be too many people like this [to take into custody].”
At some point, you need to take some risks, “otherwise democracy will come to a halt.”
He explained that sometimes security forces start watching or question someone, and then “he goes under the radar because they haven’t reached a threshold level of danger, and... he later decides on his own to escalate. He can become a perpetrator without warning... this happens in Israel even with our heightened awareness.”
Further, Schweitzer said that Britain has thwarted many attacks, and that the Parliament attacker’s profile of a man in his 50s did not fit the profile of someone who would usually arouse suspicion from security services, which focus on younger potential attackers.
Terrorism expert Prof. Liesbeth van der Heide of Leiden University’s Institute of Security and Global Affairs echoed Schweitzer, saying that “there are so many reasons why someone could be on [security services’] radar for a while” but be allowed to walk the streets.
She also agreed that vehicular attacks, especially with a car, easier to procure than a truck, are usually not preventable.
Van der Heide added that another reason suspects are allowed to go loose are “capacity issues. The sheer number of people to follow 24/7, the high number of people who might pose a security risk – at some point you must prioritize and say maybe we will not follow this person 24/7 anymore.”
She said administrative detention was being debated in both Britain and the Netherlands, but still did not have much public support – though she noted that the rising popularity of right-wing parties in Europe could affect that and related issues.
Regarding whether the Parliament building was poorly defended, both Schweitzer and van der Heide said the attack could have been worse, as the terrorist was stopped from entering Parliament and that the security on the ground had functioned well in stopping him.
They agreed that there are only so many layers of security states can put in place before the hearts of democracies start to look like fortresses.
Michael Barak, ICT Global Jihad Monitoring Group director at IDC Herzliya, said guides provided by jihadist groups on how to carry out vehicular attacks were spreading the tactic, and that Islamist have high motivation to attack on anniversaries of significant events – with London’s attack coming a year after last year’s triple attack in Brussels.
While also complimenting the UK for investing heavily in preventing terrorism, and mostly successfully, he said that maybe Britain should increase surveillance in certain areas, such as Birmingham, where Wednesday’s attacker is said to be from.
Barak noted that many followers of ISIS supporter and British preacher Anjem Choudary, imprisoned for incitement in September 2016, were from Birmingham, a fertile spot for Salafists.
Regarding Parliament, he said that security around political symbols should be taken most seriously out of all locations as they were prized targets for terrorists.