The Daily Telegraph
Lessons from a week of terror
This week, two separate events said much about the state of British society. Martin McGuinness, the former IRA commander and Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, was laid to rest. His terrible crimes go unaccounted for, but even if the absolution offered to him by some politicians was distasteful, many observers were still thankful for a hard-won peace. Political violence, however, is not gone from these islands. On Wednesday, Adrian Ajao, also known as Khalid Masood, killed four people in an attack on Westminster. Our free society remains vulnerable.
The threat today is very different to the one faced during the Troubles. In April 1993, the IRA had the means and strategic ability to smuggle a one-ton bomb from Ireland to the City of London and detonate it – killing one, injuring dozens and costing millions of pounds in damage. And in, 1972, the worst year of the Troubles, 497 people lost their lives. The UK seemed like a society in civil war.
By contrast, the DIY nature of Ajao’s attack is fitting for a movement that on some fronts is in retreat. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) has faced major territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. It is estimated that about 45,000 of its fighters have been killed in the past two years. Some of those left alive want to go home; about half of the British contingent of Isil supporters has returned. Others may decamp to Libya or focus on stirring up resistance via the web. Isil is obviously effective at radicalising and encouraging online cells and lone-wolf attackers, which Ajao may have been. Depending on one’s point of view, this is either a sign of strategic innovation or desperation.
An earlier generation of terrorists was able to mount devastating, large-scale attacks, such as September 11 or the July 7 bombings in London. Ajao’s far more amateurish effort does not fall into that category of scale. He may have escaped attention precisely because he was, to use the Prime Minister’s word, “peripheral”.
As a convert to Islam he was not part of a Muslim migrant community. He spent time in jail. He moved around the country a great deal, maintaining different identities. He did not advertise his intentions: one of the last to meet Ajao described him as “articulate, polite, presentable”. He was at some point of interest to the security services but not at the time of his attack. This wasn’t a shark moving through the waters, but a small fish, darting quickly out of view. Ultimately, it is hard to pre-empt an invisible threat.
The problem with judging the security services’ performance is that we know a lot more about its failures than its successes. The intelligence community claims to have prevented 13 attacks since 2013. Things have presumably improved a great deal from the days when MI5 failed to intercept members of the July 7 plot, even though they had been connected to known terrorists. Today, British intelligence gathering is far superior to some agencies operating on the continent, where information goes unshared and elementary mistakes are made.
Nevertheless, lessons need to be learnt all the time. Security measures at Westminster will have to be reassessed and updated. Moreover, Ajao was 52: he did not fit the profile of a likely terrorist that the intelligence services normally work from. This necessitates a rethink when it comes to adjudicating risk.
With each new threat, our understanding of the enemy improves incrementally and policy adjusts. Last year, the Government announced a crackdown on extremist literature in prisons, along with tougher regulation of visits by imams and placing extremists in special units. But does the latter not risk treating miscreants as if they were political prisoners – just as the IRA always demanded? One of the toughest questions related to extremists is the most elemental: how do we define them? Are they terrorists or merely criminals?
One thing is clear: the public refuses to allow these people to change their way of life. The popular response to Wednesday’s attack has been one of resolve, a determination to “keep calm and carry on”. That is the British way. Learn the lessons that need to be learnt, confront those who must be confronted, but do not allow the conflict to alter the country beyond recognition. This is a land of liberty and stubborn endurance. None of its enemies has yet managed to change that.