Armed police in London Bridge on Sunday. Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images
Experts say we’ll see at least another 15 years of attacks on European soil, and that—in the grand scheme of things—there’s little authorities can do.
Three terror attacks in the UK in as many months: Westminster, Manchester, and now London again. As the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate loses its hold on its heartlands of eastern Syria and northern Iraq, disaffected young European Muslims drawn to its nihilistic vision are increasingly conducting the group’s murderous revenge on the streets of European cities.
Following each incident, this year the government has called for increased online surveillance, despite the UK already having some of the widest-ranging surveillance powers of any democratic state. In a speech on Sunday morning, Theresa May again pressed the point, saying there has been “far too much tolerance of extremism” in the UK and that “we need to work with allied democratic governments to reach international agreements that regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorist planning.”
While this may have some popular support—a survey immediately after the Manchester attack saw 68 percent of respondents backing wider state powers to intercept encrypted messaging services like WhatsApp and Telegram—the tactic has been criticized by internet freedom campaigners Open Rights Group as having the potential to “push these vile networks into even darker corners of the web, where they will be even harder to observe.” Furthermore, it is as yet unclear what, if anything, such powers could have done to prevent any of the incidents this year, with MI5 currently undertaking inquiries into both the Westminster and Manchester attacks.
While it’s true that the Islamic State has utilized the internet to a degree unprecedented by any other terrorist group, both to radicalize vulnerable individuals and to actively direct attacks, terrorism analysts are divided on the utility of further surveillance powers.
On the one hand, the ungoverned space of the internet—like the ungoverned spaces of Afghanistan, northern Syria, and the Sahel in the offline world—have given jihadist groups a safe haven to organize. As the Norwegian scholar of jihadism Professor Thomas Hegghammer notes, “What many don’t realize is that the jihadis have had their online freedoms and capabilities vastly expanded during the past five years. What governments are talking about is scaling some of these recent gains back. Of course it won’t solve everything and of course, we will not be able to remove everything, but it will help, for sure.”
On the other hand, as Professor Peter Neumann of Kings College London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization notes, citing the specific cluster of ISIS fighters tied to Manchester and Portsmouth that he has studied for years, “Face-to-face relationships remain key. All the evidence shows that. Clusters like in Manchester or Portsmouth exist because people have known each other for years, from school, playing football, etc. Mobilization into violent extremism takes lots of trust and confidence, which usually comes from having close personal relationships.”
That is to say, widening the internet surveillance dragnet may help to some degree, but it’s not going to solve the problem entirely. Worryingly, the jihadist terrorist threat is already far outside the abilities of the state’s security services to adequately monitor. Roughly 850 British Muslims have joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, around half of whom may already have returned. Security services might have successfully thwarted 18 terror plots since 2013—five between the Westminster and Manchester attacks alone—but Britain now contains 23,000 potential jihadist terrorists, while the state only has the resources to monitor 3,000 at any one time. The Manchester attacker himself was reported to the security services at least five times by the local Muslim community, yet was not monitored due to the lack of resources.
Increasing the amount of electronic data to comb through for evidence of terror plots would be impossible without a vast corresponding growth of Britain’s security services, to a level unimaginable in any non-totalitarian state, which would in itself lead to further disaffection of British Muslims, creating a feedback loop of distrust and potential radicalization.
And yet, it is unclear what other options there are. The threat is certainly not dissipating. If anything, the Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge attacks offer a dark glimpse of Europe’s future.
As Professor Neumann notes: “We are dealing with a generational mobilization; the consequences of what’s happened over the past five years in Syria haven’t even ended yet. The consequences of Syria will play out in the 2020s and 2030s. We are still at the very beginning.”
In his scholarly assessment of future jihadist activity in Europe, Professor Hegghammer agrees, predicting that the threat “will continue to increase for as long as the activists that were recruited in the early 2010s are politically active—that is, for another 15 to 20 years.” Speaking to VICE, he adds that the next 15 to 20 years is “the period in which we can expect the hundreds of radicals who were imprisoned in the mid 2010s to be politically active. I expect them and their friends to be the jihadi entrepreneurs of the 2020s.”
The uncomfortable reality is that the security of civilians in Europe is now dependent as never before on the stability of the Middle East. As long as the wider region’s chaotic bloodbath spirals on, providing space for terrorist groups to organize and inspiring a small minority of Muslims in the West to kill at home, ordinary people in Britain and the rest of Europe can expect to live in the shadow of jihadist terror. Yet, there is no reason to think that the Middle East’s turmoil will end anytime soon.
So what, if anything, can be done?
For Professor Neumann, author of Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West, current counterterrorist (or CT) policy is broadly working, but requires upgrading: “Security services and police need more capacity, and Prevent needs to be revamped,” he says. “As always, good CT is a balance of repression and prevention. Let’s not forget, the problem in France and Belgium is still worse than in the UK. The UK is doing a lot of things well, even though it doesn’t look that way a few days after an attack. Not everything needs to be changed.”
Searching for possible solutions, Professor Hegghammer urges: “An EU-led ‘Marshall plan’ for improved education in immigrant-heavy areas; much more money for regular youth work; a scaling back of recent jihadi capability gains on the internet; longer sentences for terrorism-related crimes, especially recruitment. Laws against foreign fighting, of all ideological varieties. Biometrics at the EU’s outer borders. All of this will just be mitigation, though. The problem will only go away if and when there is a broad mood shift in the Muslim world toward rejecting militant Islamism; when it’s seen as distinctly uncool, even among the counter culturally inclined, like neo-Nazism in Europe today. If such a shift ever comes, it will come unexpectedly. Zeitgeist shifts cannot be predicted.”
He continues: “The long-term outcome of this is predictable: very large security services and a tense atmosphere, a bit like France today, but permanently. To me, that’s an incentive to start thinking outside the box. Are there things, both on the soft and the hard side, that we have previously dismissed as being excessive or unrealistic? Maybe we can look at them again.”
LISTEN: The British Dream – Voices from Manchester Following the Terror Attack
A decade ago, when terrorist threats to the West were delivered from Osama bin Laden on VHS tapes, rather than disseminated on social media, the founder of al Qaeda promoted a strategy of stoking civilizational conflict between the West and the Islamic world by first extinguishing the “gray zone”—the world of coexistence between Muslim minorities and non-Muslim majorities in the West—through targeted atrocities designed to stoke mistrust, majoritarian backlashes, and ultimately hatred between the two communities. It is a policy al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s forebear, perfected in stoking civil war between Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq, and it is this policy that is now being applied to Europe.
With each atrocity carried out by a tiny subset of Europe’s growing Muslim minority, voices on the right calling for the collective punishment of Islam as a whole—from mass internment of terrorist suspects to mass deportation—grow in power. Right-wing populist parties, such as Poland’s Law and Justice Party, use the attacks to justify their refusal to permit any Muslim immigration, arguing that Western Europe’s openness to the Islamic world is killing its own citizens. Early on Sunday morning, Donald Trump used the London Bridge attack to promote the need for his Muslim travel ban.
As Professor Hegghammer warns, “Continuing as we do today—with small, incremental policy adjustments—arguably has a predictable outcome. It is a Europe with much larger intelligence services, an entrenched Muslim economic underclass, and more anti-Muslim sentiment.”
Professor Neumann concurs on the risk to Europe’s internal stability, noting: “The real risk of terrorism is not physical, but psychological, and political. Look how polarized French society has become, not least because of terrorism. Extremists from all sides are egging each other on, society becomes more polarized, and the result is a shrinking space in the middle. That’s the real danger for European democracy.”
Europe’s ability to maintain social harmony while under assault from Islamist terror and the inevitable backlash it is designed to provoke should not be taken for granted and represents the primary threat to the next generation. May’s semi-futile security theater of internet surveillance is, then, a partial solution at best—a knee-jerk reaction to a mounting threat that no European government currently knows how to curtail.
Beyond all the newspaper editorials and Twitter scandals as Britain’s commentariat class grapples with the dark new reality, we are left with two options: to carry on as normal and hope for the best, or hunker down and await the worst.
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