UK Wrestles with Counterterrorism Strategy after Another Attack

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As the United Kingdom faces its fourth terrorist attack in the last three months, the country is grappling with its counterterrorism strategy as authorities face questions over how they can try to stop the violence and protect citizens.

A 47-year old man suspected of driving the van that struck a group of people near a London mosque has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and for the commission, preparation, or instigation of terrorism, according to police.  London police have not yet released the name of the attacker, but The Guardian reports it is Darren Osborne, who lives in Cardiff, Wales. According to reports, he shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims.”

Colin Clarke, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an associate fellow at the International Center for Counter Terrorism, said this recent spate of terrorist attacks will shape the broader battle against extremism in Britain.

“I think, especially in a place like the UK, we’re going to see a stricter interpretation of what the concept free speech actually means, both on the Internet and in other forums like rallies and protests,” he said.

As Britain assesses its policies to counter extremism, authorities need to prioritize one key factor, Nick Fishwick, a former senior member of the British Foreign Office, said.

“In a democracy successful counterterrorism depends on consent, so the best protection isn’t purely physical. It’s people on the streets reporting suspicions, it’s people refusing to be swayed by terrorist ideologies, it’s the police earning and retaining popular support,” Fishwick told The Cipher Brief.

Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday said the attack offers a reminder that “terrorism, extremism, and hatred take many forms, and our determination to tackle them must be the same, whoever is responsible.”

“It is why we will be reviewing our counterterrorism strategy and ensuring that police and security services have the powers they need,” she said.

The prime minister used her speech to say she would prioritize fighting extremism in all its forms, noting her plans to set up a new Commission for Countering Extremism “as a statutory body to help fight hatred and extremism in the same way as we have fought racism.”

Following the London Bridge and Borough Market attack in June, the Prime Minister called for new Internet regulations and international agreements to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online.” She said Britain needs 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.”

In that speech, she noted that Britain’s recent wave of attacks were “connected in one important sense. They are bound together by the single evil ideology of Islamist extremism that preaches hatred, sows division, and promotes sectarianism.” On Monday, May said the Finsbury Park mosque attack was “every bit as insidious and destructive to our values and our way of life” as the recent incidents connected with Islamist extremism.

Al-Muhajrioun, the extremist network which has been linked to radicalizing a number of British citizens, was able to operate for decades before it was banned in the UK, Clarke noted, and radical preachers, such as the now-jailed Anjem Choudry, “will come under further scrutiny as Britain struggles to deal with the battle against extremism.”

“This issue could become exacerbated as foreign fighters attempt to return home to the UK,” Clarke pointed out.

The London mosque attack is being treated as a terrorist incident and is being investigated by the Met’s Counter Terrorism command, according to Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu.

“The investigation is ongoing and we are working fast to know the full details of how and why this took place,” Basu said in a statement. “All the victims were from the Muslim community, and we will be deploying extra police patrols to reassure the public, especially those observing Ramadan.”

May said Monday that extra police resources “have already been deployed… and the police will continue to assess the security needs of mosques and provide any additional resources needed, especially during this final week before Eid Al-Fitr.”

And Basu added, “we are working hard to protect all communities and the public will see additional officers patrolling across the city and at Muslim places of worship. This was an attack on London and all Londoners. We should all stand together against extremists whatever their cause.”

The frequency of terrorist attacks in recent weeks in the UK shows just how challenging it is to protect soft targets, Clarke noted.

“I think that guarding mosques and other sensitive religious sites, as well as tourist attractions and popular destinations is a must,” he said. “The UK authorities are world class and already have programs and training in place to protect against soft target attacks. That they have happened so frequently in the UK over the past several weeks goes to show just how difficult it is to actually guard against them.”

“One of the things that UK authorities are probably already in the process of doing is reviewing current and existing security measures to determine whether a ‘surge capacity’ might be necessary,” he added.

Those in charge of counterterrorism policy must do “nothing hasty” in the wake of this wave of incidents, according to Fishwick. They should “keep the problem in perspective and context,” he said, and then “look at whether ways of prioritizing terror targets can be improved and whether we are using technology to best effect there.”

As the UK continues to push forward with its counterterrorism approach, authorities must prioritize communicating with the public, working with the private sector to protect venues such as concert halls and sports stadiums, and increase the services allocated to law enforcement and intelligence services, Clarke said. Those working on counterterrorism “seem to be overstretched at the moment given the level of the threat,” he noted.

British security services say they have thwarted 18 terrorist plots since 2013, and May has said five “credible plots” were disrupted since the Westminster attack in March. After the London Bridge and Borough Market attack in June, authorities said that MI5 and police are at any one time conducting around 500 active investigations that involve 3,000 subjects of interest.

“The sheer scale of the threat is immense, so the response must be as well,” Clarke said.

According to Clarke, Monday’s attack offers a number of troubling threads for authorities to follow.

“The most worrisome part of the London mosque attack is its potential to spark a broader cycle of tit-for-tat violence in the UK between Muslims and non-Muslims, to include right wing extremists,” Clarke said. “If this happened, it would fall right into line with existing ISIS propaganda, which the Islamic State would then use as ‘proof’ to confirm its narrative that the West is at war with Islam.”

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