9/11. 7/7. For most these dates require little explanation. They are forever synonymous with the horrific events they represent; events that sent shockwaves of horror around the globe. Both started off as ordinary working days, but as the attacks unfolded, hundreds and thousands of innocent people lost their lives due to the actions of radical terrorists. With terror attacks having taken place from France to America in the past few years, it remains a major concern that a similar tragedy may happen in the United Kingdom sometime soon. Yet, it was recently revealed that British Security Services have prevented 13 potential terror attacks on British soil since June 2013 and more than 500 since 7 July 2005. This feat has no doubt saved the lives of hundreds of innocent citizens. So how exactly has the intelligence community managed to achieve such an accomplishment?
Stopping terrorist attacks does not appear to be an easy task. Police officials stated there are more than 500 live terror investigations underway at most times. Yet the defences in place to stop terrorism is more than the English Channel, which keeps Britain separate from continental Europe, or the UK’s exclusion from the passport-free Schengen Zone. The major security agencies in Britain consist of GCHQ, MI5, MI6 and the police. Ever since the devastation of the 7/7 terror attacks, they have worked much more closely together, sharing information and intelligence, to ensure such a tragedy never happens again. And so far, they have been successful.
One major asset, as detailed by Mark Rowley, Assistant Commissioner to Specialist Operations in the Metropolitan Police Service, is that the public now much more readily contributes information about fellow citizens acting in a way they find odd or unusual. Although this could be negatively interpreted as people being over-cautious and less trusting of others, this trend has foiled potentially devastating terror attacks on the British public. It was noted by the Metropolitan Police that people are often reluctant to come forward with information, either believing it to be of little importance and not wanting to waste police time, or not wanting to become implicated in such in-depth police work. Nevertheless, Rowley said that public contribution to preventing such attacks is ‘extraordinary,’ and on several occasions, public tip-offs have led to the beginnings of investigations, whereas in other cases they have added to information already held by the police.
Metropolitan Police’s report showed that the public should trust their instincts with what they judge to be out of character. An example comes from a lecturer at a university who taught a student that was later revealed to be self-radicalised. The lecturer described how the student asked him in oddly explicit detail which bacteria could be used to kill people. Feeling uneasy, he alerted police and the student was arrested. This is just one example of many arrests, which have been made over the past few years, with an average of one arrest per day. This is unsurprising, given that the threat for international terrorism in the UK has remained at ‘severe’ for more than two years, which indicates an attack is highly likely. Yet no attacks have happened so far, due to the diligent work of the police service, and information from the British public.
The threat of terror attacks is not only from the Islamic State (IS). Threats from Al-Qaeda are still prevalent, and attacks from far-right groups are seeing a steady increase. Also, the variety of weapons available to attackers like firearms, knives, and vehicles make detecting potential terrorism more difficult. And, with the advance of technology, it is easier for extremist groups to use advanced techniques like encrypted communication methods, while simultaneously concealing plans from intelligence agencies. Data can also be obtained by observing terrorist attacks in other countries, such as the Nice truck attack in 2016.
Statistics released by anti-terrorist hotlines showed that calls have more than doubled over the past year. Rowley once again highlighted the action taken by citizens who called to report suspicious behaviour. It is true that British security agencies are vital in stopping terrorist attacks, but they depend on information from the citizens they are trying so hard to protect.
Yet, as these statistics have revealed, the possibility of there being another attack like 7/7 is possible. France, Germany and the United States are but a few of the western countries that have experienced extreme violence at the hands of terrorists in recent years. Just last year in Birmingham and London, attacks during the Christmas period, which would have resulted in the loss of many lives, were halted.
On 22 March, a terrorist attack was carried out in London’s Westminster where a car drove onto the pavement and ploughed into pedestrians. The car then crashed into the railings of New Palace Yard, where the driver entered the Carriage Gates, coming in terrifyingly close proximity to MPs and the Prime Minister. Five people (including the assailant) have died and around 20 people were injured, including a group of French schoolchildren. Despite the preparation and rehearsals undertaken by police and security services, such an attack is always a shock, particularly in the heart of the English capital. We can only hope that London will emerge stronger from this horror, and that the combined efforts of security forces and citizen attentiveness will reduce the likelihood of such an attack happening again.