The Daily Telegraph

Amid the grief, take pride in the fact that terrorists can never win

British society is resilient in its diversity, so the extremists are failing to achieve their goals


Donald Trump Jr couldn’t quite understand it. “You have to be kidding me?!” he told his Twitter followers, pointing to a quote from Sadiq Khan that said the terrorism threat is “part and parcel” of life in London. But what the London Mayor said is, alas, quite true: terrorist attacks are a constant threat and yet the city has flourished. This makes an important point often lost in the aftermath of such events – it’s not that terrorism will fail, but that it has already failed. Demonstrab­ly so.

The capital was not paralysed by fear yesterday; the response was similar to that following other outrages over the years. Since the IRA started its regular attacks in 1973, the city has adapted. Passengers on the London Undergroun­d grew used to the lack of bins (used by the IRA to store bombs) and came to learn that when “Inspector Sands” is called to the control room then it’s code for a suspected emergency. Which, in 99 per cent of cases, does not involve terrorism. A sign not to panic, but to jump on the train before the station is evacuated.

The resilience of Londoners has become a proud fact of city life. The same is true for New Yorkers after 9/11 and the French after Paris and Nice. Public reaction is one of sympathy for the victims and their families, combined with contempt for terrorists and their cause – and political leaders are given every encouragem­ent not to yield to them. If the terrorists have any strategic objective, they fail. The IRA’s hope was that its attacks would apply public pressure for the UK to let go of Northern Ireland. It didn’t work.

When Islamic terrorism arrived in Britain, there was the prospect of a backlash against Muslims – playing into the hands of the jihadists who hoped to foment a clash of civilisati­ons. Again, this failed. Social cohesion has been another stand-out feature of British life; there is no sign of the overtly Islamophob­ic political parties that are so successful on the continent. If Londoners were unable to distinguis­h between Islam and jihadism, the city probably would not have elected a Muslim mayor.

The average British terrorist is aged about 22 when apprehende­d. Khalid Masood was 52, having seemed to graduate from petty crime to jihad over the last decade. His life story, when it emerges, will likely confound the old idea that extremism is born out of poverty. Jidhadis tend to be university­educated and brought up with every opportunit­y in life. It’s now almost a quarter-century since the playwright Hanif Kureishi wrote My Son The Fanatic, and the drama he imagined has been played out time and time again. Parents, who immigrated and settled happily in the West, watching in helpless horror as their child is gripped by fundamenta­lism.

Over the years, the security services have managed to understand this process and intercept people in good time. Their success comes in news we never hear about; plots quietly thwarted, often before there’s enough evidence to convict. British officials believe they’re now able, perhaps better than anyone else in Europe, to intercept any jihadist cell planning a mass-casualty attack. Masood had a car and a knife. Sickening, but different to the kind of atrocity that was being feared around the time of the 2005 London bombings.

Tom Hurd, the Home Office’s counter-terrorism chief, has long argued that the main terrorist threat is lone wolf attackers inspired by online propaganda. Al-Qaeda once had a digital magazine, Inspire, that offered bomb-making instructio­ns (which was once changed, by British spies, to code with a recipe for cupcakes). The Islamic State is more digitally adept, churning out propaganda aimed at encouragin­g lone jihadists to begin low-tech attacks. One of its recent online pamphlets, for example, advises on the type of lorry to hire for a Nice-style attack – in the hope that fanatics such as Khalid Masood will take the initiative.

Masood embodies the type of threat British security services believe now remains, the one-man attack which is harder to intercept. That he was known to MI5 doesn’t necessaril­y imply a security failure. Its register has 3,000 British residents potentiall­y linked to terrorism and it takes 50 undercover officers to tail a suspect around the clock. It would require East German-levels of resources to check whether any of them had bought a kitchen knife and set out for Westminste­r. When the inquiries into this event are complete, they may well show that Masood’s attack was one that no free country could have prevented.

So it might well be that we have now reached the limit of British counter- terrorism capabiliti­es. But terrorism itself might also be reaching its limits. Its history has been bloody, but also one of abject failure. Al-Qaeda’s repeatedly stated aim was the withdrawal of American influence from the Middle East, specifical­ly Saudi Arabia. But its terrorist campaign produced the opposite results. Towards the end of his life, even Osama bin Laden advised his lieutenant­s not to target civilians because the policy had served to stiffen Western resolve.

For decades, the objective of terrorism has been to put pressure on civilians so a government is pushed to change course. But it almost always ends in abject failure. Chechnya was on course for independen­ce from Russia before its separatist­s blew up two Moscow apartments in 1999, killing hundreds. From then on, the Chechen cause was viewed with the sort of contempt that the Spanish held for Basque separatist­s after the atrocities of Eta. Kurdish and Kashmiri terrorists have found the same.

The Rand Corporatio­n, a think tank, once looked at every terrorist group active between 1968 and 2006 and found 96 per cent had failed to achieve their objectives in any way. For anyone using suicide bombs, the figure was zero. Islamic State, which claimed responsibi­lity for the Westminste­r attack, may well hope that a few Western attacks will conceal the fact that it is collapsing. It has lost most of the territory it held in Iraq. About 45,000 of its fighters have been killed in the past two years and by some estimates it only has 15,000 left.

We don’t hear about the “war on terror” any more and with good reason: it could never be won. But it’s worth rememberin­g that the other side has never seen victory, and never will.

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