BIRMINGHAM, England—Khuram Butt had already demonstrated his extremist views for millions to see, over a year before he ran down pedestrians in London and butchered Saturday-night diners while chanting Islamist slogans.
Shown praying to an Islamist black flag in a 2016 documentary aired on British television, Butt had caught the attention of U.K. police, but was dropped from interest after questioning. The next time the police encountered the 27-year-old British citizen, it was to shoot him dead along with his two accomplices, halting eight minutes of terror that took eight lives and injured 48 in the London Bridge area.
The attack on June 3 was the third terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in nine weeks. Perpetrators of all three attacks were “home-grown extremists” previously known to security services, prompting questions about how authorities are handling the extremist threat.
The U.K.’s counterterrorism strategy relies heavily on maintaining close surveillance of suspected extremists.
The London Bridge attacker, Butt, was one of 20,000 people known to counterterrorism authorities for their extremist views, but wasn’t one of the 3,000 extremists under surveillance in the current 500 active investigations.
Rethinking the Security Response
Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, the U.K.’s leading counterterrorism officer, called for a rethink of security strategy, at a June 6 press briefing. “In nine weeks, we’ve had five plots foiled and three successful attacks. That is completely different to anything we have seen for a long time,” he said.
Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement on June 4, “While we have made significant progress in recent years, 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 across the public sector and across society.”
The attack on London Bridge came just days ahead of the general election, quickly bundling counterterrorism security into the melee of the general election campaign.
The elected government will face greater public concern over security and growing calls for more robust actions against known extremists, including the hundreds of battle-hardened Islamists returning from fighting for the ISIS terrorist group in the Middle East.
Max Abrahms, an expert on terrorism and radical Islam at Northeastern University, said that counterterrorism services are often unfairly criticized.
Terrorism is very difficult to counter for two main reasons, Abrahms said: terrorists are indiscriminate in their targets, and they are prepared to die.
However, he said the last two attacks in the U.K. “reflect poorly” on the security service, especially when it was already known that Butt supported ISIS and that Manchester terrorist Salman Abedi “was an open supporter of Salafist terrorist groups for at least five years.”
If authorities are simply too stretched to be able monitor people who openly support terrorism, the U.K. should admit it has “a major, major jihadist problem,” he said.
Simplistic Attacks Hard to Stop
Some security experts say that the U.K. has one of the most effective anti-terrorism operations in the world, having cut its teeth during decades of threats from the Irish Republican Army, and that the recent attacks are more indicative of the size of the threat than of failed security.
“You’ve got that list of 20,000 people, but there will be more that aren’t known,” said Drew Berquist, a counterterrorism expert for the U.S. intelligence community and founder of OpsLens, a website that provides daily commentary on national security issues.
Berquist said the threat has become much harder to counter in the last couple of years with the shift in the modus operandi of terrorists in Europe and the West.
The more “theatrical” airline bombings of terrorists past were easier to thwart because they required complex planning and communications, which could be intercepted, he explained.
The shift to more simplistic attacks, such as hammer and knife attacks, or using vehicles as a weapon, has made terrorists far more difficult to track.
“This makes the list of potential suspects and targets so extensive that you just don’t have the resources to stop it,” Berquist said.
The process of radicalization has been accelerated through the internet, he said, with people no longer having to spend months overseas to become radicalized.
“Young, susceptible minds are radicalized over social media and the dark web,” he said.
Naming and shaming the ideology behind the Islamist-inspired attacks is fundamental, say some counterextremist organizations, such as Quilliam.
Quilliam CEO Haras Rafiq said that the U.K. has to stop tiptoeing around the influence of the extreme interpretation of Islam they label Islamism.
“The only way to defeat this type of extremism and terrorism is for government and all British communities to unashamedly name, shame, and challenge the threat,” he said in a June 4 statement. “That includes the ideology that is underpinning it. The ideology has its roots in Islamist-inspired Salafi Jihadism, and we must all admit the problem before we can attempt to challenge it.”
Berquist says that those identified as extremists must be handled more robustly, putting off would-be jihadists before the ideology has a chance to form as strongly in their minds.
However, he said that this approach is often hampered by notions of political correctness and fears of being labeled as racist.
Abrahms believes it is possible to balance civil liberties with counterterrorism by avoiding the trap of indiscriminately punishing a certain population. “But it is not a violation of liberal values to doggedly pursue those who declare allegiance to [ISIS],” he said.
The U.K. authorities rarely use the extra counterterrorism powers available to them, which include being able to force suspects to relocate, adhere to a curfew, report to police regularly, or attend a de-radicalization program.
The attack on London Bridge has raised questions not only on how to thwart extremism and attacks, but how to handle them once they are underway.
There are currently fewer than 6,000 police officers carrying firearms in England and Wales—about one in every 20 officers.
The attack in London was stopped within eight minutes, but in some towns and cities it would take much longer for armed units to be deployed, leading some to fear it could cost lives.
The arming of police is controversial in the U.K., with some fiercely proud of the tradition of unarmed officers, but there is growing public support for more, if not all, officers to be armed.