Wednesday’s attack once again underlines the challenges posed by ‘lone wolves’
The attack in London’s Westminster that left five persons dead, including the assailant, was the type of terror strike that British security officials have been expecting. For almost three years, the threat level from international terrorism in Britain has been “severe”, meaning an attack is deemed highly likely. This incident was different from a conventional terror strike, but bore similarity to attacks on European cities in recent years claimed by the Islamic State. As the Berlin and Nice assailants did last year, the London attacker, Khalid Masood, turned a vehicle into a lethal weapon by mowing down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and later killed a police officer with a kitchen knife at the Parliament compound. Britain has one of the best counter-terror police and intelligence agencies in Europe. Since the 2005 London bombings, the country has remained largely safe. In the last four years, British officials have reportedly thwarted at least 13 terror plots. The country has one of the strictest gun control laws, and its borders, unlike countries in the European Union, are not open. Still the Westminster attack shows how a “lone wolf” without any conventional weapons could bring terror even to the most guarded zones. This is the security challenge the British establishment, as other governments, face today. If terror plots are planned by networks that use modern communication systems and amass weapons, the chances of detecting them are higher. But after the rise of the IS, its followers, mostly radicalised youth, have used different tactics. They stay off the intelligence radar, wait, and use even commonly used public goods as weapons to kill.
It is still not clear if Masood had communicated with an international terrorist organisation. The IS, that claimed responsibility for the incident, described him as a “soldier” of the Caliphate who responded to the “call” to attack Western nations, but stopped short of saying it directed the attack. If such attackers do not have any contact with terrorist groups, it makes it difficult for intelligence communities to detect them. To its advantage, the IS has created a narrative where every ‘believer’ has the responsibility to take up weapons against the ‘crusaders’ and their allies. Given that the group also has a dynamic online propaganda system, the challenges of radicalisation it poses remain. Britain’s immediate response has been commendable. Both political and community leaders, barring the far-right fringe, sent out a message of unity. But the bigger challenge is to prevent more such non-conventional attacks, for which security officials need to have better human intelligence and community relations. Equally important is to deny the far right the opportunity to use such actions by a handful of individuals and target the majority of British Muslims, exactly what the terrorists want.