Terror in London: ISIS Threat to West Intensifying

Photo: AP/Matt Dunham

As the United Kingdom grapples with its third terrorist attack in three months, international counterterrorism cooperation and intelligence sharing will be vital to confront the “new normal” of the evolving global threat of terrorism, experts told The Cipher Brief.

At least seven people were killed and dozens injured on Saturday night when a van rammed into pedestrians on London Bridge and then continued onto Borough Market, where three attackers emerged with knives and stabbed people in the busy area of South London.

Nick Fishwick, a former senior member of the British Foreign Office, said “it is clearly not possible to stop all sorts of attacks in a free society, but that does not mean nothing can be done.”

“One part of Britain’s counterterror strategy is to prepare our response to attacks, and this actually worked very well,” he said. “The alleged murderers were themselves killed within eight minutes of the attacks starting, and the emergency services did brilliant work in minimizing death and injury.”

Todd Rosenblum, former acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, noted that “simple plots against soft targets” are the “new normal in Europe, and to a lesser extent, the United States.”

“There was a time when terrorist organizations like al Qaeda viewed these kind of attacks as ‘beneath’ their strategic objectives. ISIS has a different approach. It encourages individuals to attack children, schools, social gatherings, and civilians to, in its view, sow fear, mistrust, and disruption in the West. It favors quantity,” he said.

ISIS on Sunday claimed responsibility for the attack.

London Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said Sunday there has been “significant progress” in the investigation and officers are working closely with the national counterterrorism policing network and U.K. intelligence partners “to piece together exactly what occurred.” Twelve people were arrested in a counterterrorism raid connected with the assault, and searches are “ongoing,” he said.

Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said U.K. investigators would be digging into information about the attackers and people connected with them.

“This part of the playbook is — regrettably — very well developed. It starts with the perpetrators and the crime scenes. Who were they? Who are their contacts? Examining their phones, online history, travel records, family members, and the like. From there, officials will examine increasingly large concentric circles to understand all of the aspects of their contacts. In addition, thanks to London’s extensive CCTV, officials will be able to track their movements with some specificity,” he said.

As the investigation unfolds, international cooperation on counterterrorism is “essential to shared security,” Rosenblum said.

“U.S. intelligence cooperation exists in varying degrees of strategic trust. U.S.-U.K. intelligence and law enforcement cooperation is as deep as it gets,” he said.

Following leaks to U.S. media after the Manchester attack, President Donald Trump called for the Department of Justice “to launch a complete review of this matter.” Britain and the U.S. — along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — are members of the “Five Eyes” alliance, a group of countries that share valuable intelligence information.

Saturday’s attack marked the third terrorist incident in the United Kingdom in the space of three months, following a similar attack in March where a man ploughed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London and then stabbed to death a policeman and the May suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester that killed 22 children and adults.

“In terms of their planning and execution, the recent attacks are not connected but we believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said Sunday. She also said five “credible plots” have been disrupted since the Westminster attack.

According to former Acting and Deputy Director of the CIA Michael Morell, some of the general public in Europe and the U.S. may have mistakenly believed that as the ISIS caliphate crumbled, “the threat from ISIS would be reduced as well.”

“That expectation was wrong. We always knew that the threat would get worse before it gets better – for two reasons. One is that ISIS is telling new recruits, ‘don’t come to fight with us in Iraq and Syria; rather, stay home and conduct attacks there.’ Two, is that many of the foreign fighters who came to Iraq and Syria, at least the ones that did not die on the battlefield there, are coming home. And when they come home, they will conduct attacks,” he told The Cipher Brief.

David Shedd, former DIA Acting Director and Deputy Director, said that “taking a truck or using knives, which have been used before in the U.K., is a natural tactical outgrowth of a manifestation of the success that we’re seeing in the epicenter of Syria and Iraq.”

This incident comes just days ahead of Thursday’s general election in the U.K. May on Sunday called for a review of counter-extremism and counterterrorism efforts in the country “to make sure the police and security services have all the powers they need.” There has been “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country,” May said, and “things need to change.”

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Sunday vowed to “take whatever action is necessary and effective” for public safety. “You cannot protect the public on the cheap,” he said, criticizing his opponent’s record on police cuts.

Fishwick said he expects the U.K’s counter-terrorism strategy will “come under the political microscope after the election is out of the way.”

“Mrs. May clearly wants to toughen up our existing approach while the Labour opposition wants to review the strategy and has been arguing that the ‘war on terror’ has not worked,” he said. “So, one way or another there will be changes after June 8. I hope the changes will be carefully considered and not panic reactions.”

Trump, meanwhile, wrote a series of statements on Twitter criticizing London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, by mischaracterizing his comments following Saturday’s attack, pushing for support for his proposed travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, and calling for a stop to “being politically correct” to deal with security issues related to terrorism.

Just as British investigators work across the Atlantic, “right now, FBI agents and analysts responsible for counterterrorism are working 24-7,” John Perren, who served as the Assistant Director for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, said.

“The battle rhythm is very high. You’d almost think the attack happened in our country,” he said, noting that within the U.S., the Intelligence Community will be “exchanging information at a ferocious speed” and talking with their British partners.

There will be “very deep cooperation” between the FBI, CIA, and NSA with their respective counterparts MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, Leiter noted. And the U.S. government will also be “looking to learn from the event and, immediately, adjust our own intelligence priorities” and protective measures if necessary, he said.

According to Leiter, attacks like Saturday’s are “the new normal until we disrupt physical safe havens in places like Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere, and until we are more able to disrupt the online safe havens that are fueling much of this violent extremism.”

View our expert commentary on this topic:

Pressure in UK Building for Crackdown on Suspected ISIS Sympathizers, by Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center

U.K. Elections Will Test May’s Get-Tough Stance, by Nick Fishwick, a former Senior Member of the British Foreign Office

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

Leone Lakhani and Elaine Shannon contributed to this report.

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