With a government in crisis facing an increasingly dangerous terrorist threat, new options are on the table that could erode society’s resistance to further attacks.
- By John GearsonJohn Gearson is a professor of national security studies at King’s College London. He is the co-author (with Hugo Rosemont) of “CONTEST as Strategy: Reassessing Britain’s Counterterrorism Approach.”
As Britain grappled with its third terrorist attack in as many months a few weeks ago, the usual platitudes wheeled out in the aftermath of terrorist attacks were dusted off. The British, we were reminded, will “keep calm and carry on.” Politicians invoked the “spirit” of London and even made reference to the Blitz of 1940, when during World War II Germany’s Luftwaffe failed to bring Britain to its knees despite bombing London and many other British cities to rubble. (This last is a particularly unfortunate comparison, ascribing to the morally bankrupt murderers of recent weeks a strategic relevance they do not possess.)
Just as quickly, however, parts of the media sought targets other than the terrorists to blame for the attacks — how did the security services “miss” the five individuals who carried out the recent attacks? The calls from politicians for increased resources for the police/intelligence services (without clear budgetary proposals), “tougher” sentences for people convicted of terrorism offenses (difficult without changes in legislation), and, most strikingly, the wide use of measures to, in effect, place citizens under house arrest — known as control orders — were plentiful. Even previously skeptical politicians joined this rush to cry out for more security: Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn — historically hardly a fan of the security services — last week he would take “whatever action is necessary” to protect the British people, if he were prime minister. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May stated that “enough is enough” and “things need to change” — and two days before the June 8 election went so far as to say she wouldn’t let laws protecting human rights stand in her way in the fight against terrorism. The failure by May to secure an absolute majority in Parliament means that things will be changing, but not necessarily in ways she had intended — at least in the short term.
The British public has indeed proved resilient so far — but this should not be taken for granted. In the febrile atmosphere of a general election campaign, there was a growing sense that, for all the talk of keeping calm and carrying on, at the same time something must be done to ensure public confidence. In the face of the recent terrorist outrages, it does feel like a tipping point may have been reached. The prime minister’s tough talk before the election concluded with a focus on ideology and values: “Defeating this ideology is one of the great challenges of our time.… It will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence and make them understand that our values — pluralistic, British values — are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”
Amid all this, it’s worth keeping in mind that Britain has been here before — and that faced with the threat of terrorism, a stiff upper lip did not always prevail. Many in the wake of the June 3 London Bridge attack invoked the years Britain spent under the threat of Northern Ireland-related terrorism as one of the reasons that the country and its values would not succumb. But the country’s record during those years is mixed. Most controversially, it turned to widespread internment of terrorist suspects in the 1970s when faced with rising violence. In the summer of 1971, for example, the country saw 10-15 incidents of serious violence per month and the murder of the first British soldier in the province.
Used primarily against the threat posed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its political wing, Sinn Fein, the policy saw almost 2,000 people interned between 1971 and 1975 in a measure that most historians now view as a policy disaster and which actually led to an increase in violence. While useful intelligence was obtained in the short term and many active terrorists were taken off the streets, strategically the policy was a public relations calamity, domestically and internationally, handing a propaganda opportunity to the IRA, which it fully exploited.
Making matters worse, the British Army also adopted “deep interrogation techniques” on some interned prisoners, which were later declared illegal. (These included what became known as the five techniques: wall-standing, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and drink.) The Army’s account of its operations in Northern Ireland was blunt: “Put simply, on balance and with the benefit of hindsight, it was a major mistake.” An alleged shoot-to-kill policy was also widely debated in the following decade of the Northern Ireland “Troubles”; some have alleged that British special forces took opportunities to use lethal force rather than detain suspected terrorists during operations in the province. As a sign of how far we’ve come, the clear use of a shoot-to-kill policy adopted by the police in confronting the recent suspected suicide terrorists at London Bridge — the three men wore mock suicide vests, and 50 rounds were discharged by the police officers — has attracted little comment, albeit in profoundly different circumstances.
When suicide terrorism first arrived in Britain, in the form of the shocking attacks on the London Underground of July 7, 2005, the mood in London — notably in government departments and Parliament — was one of resolution, determination, and, once again, “keeping calm and carrying on.” When a second wave of suicide bombers attempted another attack, however, on July 21, 2005 (the devices failed to explode due to mistakes in the explosive mixture), the mood changed profoundly. Numerous alerts across the capital and elsewhere reflected intense concern that a Rubicon had been crossed and that terrorists would always find ways to get through.
The government of the day responded by proposing new terrorist offenses and sought new powers, including the ability to detain terrorist suspects for up to 90 days — up from 14 — before any charges were brought, citing the complexity of terrorist investigations. The government was defeated in Parliament on the issue, but pre-trial detention powers were increased to 28 days — still much higher than for other crimes including violence or murder. Later, the government again attempted to increase detention to 42 days, though was again defeated — and notably opposed by a former head of MI5. Pre-charge detention was later reduced back down to 14 days in 2011 by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government; Prime Minister May has now proposed a return to 28-day detention powers.
The threat from terrorism today appears very different from the battles of an earlier age — different from the IRA, certainly, and perhaps different even from previous forms of violent Islamist extremism. But for counterterrorism officials and policymakers, history still offers certain important insights. Britain has for many years based its counterterrorism policies on a delicate balance of security and liberty. Crucial to this balance has been that, for the most part, it has sought to maintain “normality” in confronting the threats — though it has not always succeeded. Instead how we define normality has changed. The public has been told to keep calm and carry on but, contradictorily, that it is not a question of if but when further terrorist attacks occur. Even Britain’s generally unarmed, community-focused police forces have significantly changed their public persona. Britain now has paramilitary-style units of officers — often masked — equipped with instructions to “locate and confront” threats, rather than previously to “locate, contain, and neutralize” them. Now, Britain seems set to debate once again just what further powers are needed to confront terrorism and how to avoid changing normality too much.
While they debate this, policymakers should focus on the question of what will support the resilience of British society the best — what will, in fact, enable Britain to keep calm and carry on. The author of the U.K. counterterrorism strategy (or CONTEST), David Omand, defines national resilience as “strengthening the overall ability of society to bounce back as quickly as practicable into the patterns of normal life after a major disruption.” The counterterrorism approach has been to focus on reducing the risk from terrorism so people can go about their “normal” lives, “freely” and with “confidence” — and in doing so the vulnerability of society to terrorism is reduced.
Thus, the resilience of Britain’s population is an asset to be protected. It is an important weapon in confronting and delegitimizing terrorist acts and ultimately even in deterring attacks by making it clear that any desired terrorist outcomes — such as creating a sense of ever-increasing vulnerability or provoking repressive responses by the government in order to alienate target communities and increase radicalization — will not be advanced by attacks. The British people have demonstrated their resilience before, during earlier waves of terrorism; the responses — with some exceptions — generally reflected British values, and the momentum of events never decisively moved in the direction of the terrorists. But this asset can be undermined: Policymakers should tread carefully in promising tougher, but not necessarily more effective, policies that could end up damaging public confidence by emphasizing vulnerability.
When they were forestalled in attempts to gain increased powers, previous governments nonetheless continued to advance other policies that appeared to work. Steps toward making many public places more secure and broader efforts at ensuring resilience in the response to terrorism — backed up with an enormous increase in intelligence capabilities and an insistence on agencies, ministries, and police forces doing better in sharing information — were ultimately successful in preventing further attacks on such scale. In the decade after the July 7, 2005, bombings, there were no suicide attacks in the U.K. other than the murder of an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, by two individuals using tactics similar to those used at London Bridge recently. Normality of sorts was thus maintained through patient and careful application of policies, which avoided a sense of crisis.
Britain can point to more than 15 years of, frankly, remarkable success in disrupting numerous terrorist plots. But its record is less impressive on reducing the continuing threat of terrorism from radicalized individuals. The challenge facing policymakers today is how to balance the apparent need to take preemptive action to forestall future suicide attacks while avoiding the sense of crisis and tackling radicalization. Realistically, the most dramatic measures — like internment, control orders, or electronic tagging involving hundreds of targets of interest — are unlikely: A widespread use of such drastic steps risks creating the perception that the days of normal are over; consequential knock-on effects on public resilience could follow. Rather, the new government that emerges needs to engage the public far more as a partner in this process — not only in agreeing what levels of security are acceptable but also in confronting the reasons for the poor outcomes of counter-radicalization efforts to date.
This requires, as the prime minister has suggested, discussing some difficult questions, but it also implies that the government should be ready to deal with some difficult answers if it truly wants this national dialogue to be successful. That would really show the superiority of British values.
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