The US president’s impetuous reaction was to tweet that the attack on London Bridge and the Borough Market proved that American courts should “give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” Note the exemplary use of the exclamation mark. However, Trump did have the grace eight minutes later to offer a form of condolence to the British people – “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
The capitals presumably mean either that he was shouting or that he really means it. Not so the One Nation leader, who chose to use Twitter to desecrate the warning from the British authorities for people to “run, hide and tell” by declaring that it was time to “stop Islamic immigration before it is too late”.
Labor’s Penny Wong rightly declared Hanson’s eructation “irresponsible and crass”. One of Australia’s foremost counter-terrorism experts, Greg Barton of Deakin University, went further, telling me that what the One Nation leader was saying was “downright dangerous” on at least two counts.
One, in this age of postmodern terrorism, Islamic State operates as the first metaphysical nation with no dependence on physical territory or traditional communication to wield its power. In that environment, the security authorities rely on tips from the communities from which impressionable operatives emerge.
Maligning those very communities, Barton says, tends to make its members turn inward, reducing their trust in the authorities and diminishing the likelihood that they will report the wayward behaviour of people they know. Witness the bizarre spectacle of the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, praying loudly in the street.
Second, it encourages the very sense of alienation, the feeling that they are stigmatised outsiders, that leads people to lose their sense of belonging. That makes them more vulnerable to the brutal siren call of murderous extremists.
Hanson either does not know this or does not care, because it is likely that her anti-Muslim message, basically a reworking of her initial hostility to Aborigines and then to Asians, appeals to much of One Nation’s base. What more would you expect from a person who over two decades has used the public purse to turn politics into a highly successful small business?
There are legitimate questions, though, about this latest attack in the UK, the third in as many months. One is whether Britain has a peculiar problem when it comes to these apparently autonomous acts of ghastly violence. The other is whether the London Bridge/Borough Market attack had anything to do with the UK election, now only days away.
The answer to the latter is probably not. As Barton points out, if the perpetrators had wanted to influence voters, they or their sponsors would have made a statement to that effect in some form, either direct or allusive.
That is not to say that the violence of Saturday night won’t affect the result of Thursday’s poll. Conventional analysis has it that assaults on security tend to favour the incumbent, especially if they are from the centre right.
Theresa May’s Tories consistently poll as “better for” national security than Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this has not been a conventional UK election campaign and there are also questions about whether a sense may take root within the electorate that the government is failing to protect the community, following two fatal acts of terrorism in just a fortnight – Manchester and now London. May was, after all, home secretary, responsible for domestic security, for six years before she became prime minister.
She has not had a good election. Gone are the days, less than two months ago, when it looked as if she could gain a majority of 100 in the House of Commons, knocking Corbyn for six. Her refusal to engage with Corbyn was seen as arrogant, and UK voters are sick of going to the polls (three times in less than two years). There was also her blunder on a “dementia” tax, essentially a proposal to make the elderly contribute to their health care if they have combined assets of more than £100,000.
Immediate public outcry forced a U-turn, but the damage had been done. As campaign managers would say, May had gone “off-message”. The election was no longer a plebiscite on her managing of Brexit, but an argument about health and welfare, traditional Labour turf.
It was a surprising mistake, especially given that as a political up-and-comer May warned the Conservatives back in 2002 that it had become the “nasty party”. Its base was “too narrow” and on occasion so were its sympathies, a sermon this child of the manse had clearly forgotten delivering.
On the question of security, the message from the voters is decidedly mixed. In the wake of the Manchester attack Corbyn boldly, but deliberately, stated:
Many … professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported … and terrorism here at home.
From the G7 summit, May went thermonuclear:
I have been here with the G7, working with other international leaders to fight terrorism. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault.
Corbyn was “not up to the job”, she said. He also faced criticism from within his own ranks, but it seems May’s decision to play the security card was not as effective as she might have hoped, because the opinion polls continued to tighten in Labour’s favour.
None of this means May will lose when the votes come in on Thursday. Rather, it shows that national security is a more complex issue in the UK these days, after a decade and a half of unpopular wars and years punctuated by regular, fatal terrorist attacks.
It is not clear whether the story is the same in either the United States or Australia. It is possible this is one way the UK is grimly unique.
The pattern has become all too familiar. Young people gathered for a musical event find themselves subjected to what British Prime Minister Theresa May has described as an “appalling terrorist attack”.
While there is no confirmation as yet this was a terrorist-inspired incident, police suspect the Manchester attack, which has so far killed 22 people and injured 59 others, was caused either by a bomb contained in an abandoned backpack, or was the work of a suicide bomber.
At this stage no group has claimed responsibility. But it is not being overlooked that last week Islamic State released a 44-minute video in which fighters of different nationalities urged their supporters back home to carry out acts of violence.
Among those featured was a British man.
What makes Islamic State more dangerous – even desperate – in the current climate is that it finds itself under enormous pressure in its strongholds in Iraq and in Syria. Its grip on the northern Iraqi city of Mosul is slipping, and it is under threat in its Syrian redoubt of Raqqa.
It is important not to jump to conclusions about the identity of those responsible. However, whatever judgements might be made about the carnage at a Manchester music hall, this latest bombing underscores the vulnerability of European cities to such acts of violence.
Underscoring the deep-seated shock this will be causing in Britain is that this is the worst terrorism-related episode since the 2005 public transport bombings in London in which 52 people died.
Since 2015, more than half-a-dozen terrorist attacks have been carried out in various European locations, including France, Germany, Belgium and Britain, and in the case of several of these countries there have been multiple incidents.
What the governments of Europe have on their hands are threats to personal security that can strike at any time and in any place, as various terrorist incidents in the past year or so have demonstrated.
This poses an enormous challenge to security agencies, including the police, and, in the case of Britain, MI5, the spy agency responsible for internal security.
Such random acts of terrorism are enormously difficult, if not impossible, to counter unless open societies are subjected to security measures that most citizens would find difficult to accept.
If it proves to be the case the Manchester bombing was carried out by a sole suicide bomber, or a bomb-laden backpack placed strategically, this would underscore difficulties in policing a musical event in which large numbers of people gather in a specific location.
While France has been the main victim of a wave of terrorism in the past several years, Britain is running second.
In the most recent incident prior to the Manchester bombing, the driver of a vehicle mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and then shot a policeman outside the Houses of Parliament.
The concert hall attack in Manchester recalls a similar episode in Paris at a the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015 when shootings caused multiple deaths.
Islamic State claimed responsibility on that occasion.
What is adding to political complexities of the Manchester bombing is that it comes in the middle of a British election campaign in which immigration and Britain’s withdrawal from Europe are central questions.
How this will play out in the next days and weeks is difficult to assess, but as a rule of thumb such incidents would be more likely to benefit the parties of the right than the left.
On the other hand, governments in power and therefore responsible for security inevitably face awkward questions about levels of preparedness for such terrorist incidents, if indeed that is what we are talking about in the case of the Manchester bombing.
Terrorist violence is now baked into the European landscape. It is hard to see an end to this.
* Note: This story has been updated to reflect the latest information on fatalities.
A massive malware attack was launched on Friday, affecting at least 75,000 computers in 99 countries. Computers running Microsoft Windows were infected with “WanaCrypt0r 2.0 or WannaCry” ransomware. Once infected, all of the files on the computer are encrypted by the malware, which then displays a ransom demand of between US $300 and $600 in bitcoin that needs to be paid before the files can be decrypted.
The WannaCry ransomware is being spread through a weakness in Microsoft Windows that was originally exploited by the US National Security Agency (NSA) as part of their arsenal of cyberweapons in a tool called “Eternal Blue”. Unfortunately, this tool, along with many others, was stolen by hackers and leaked to the world in April 2017 by a hacker group calling themselves the “Shadow Brokers”.
Microsoft had already released a fix for the Eternal Blue vulnerability in March, but the extent of the WannaCrypt attack has highlighted how many organisations have failed to apply the fix, or are running copies of Windows that are so old that there wasn’t a fix for them.
At the time or writing, one of the bitcoin addresses used by the malware showed that only a few people had paid the ransomware so far but the number has been slowly ticking up.
The spread of the first wave of WannaCry ransomware may have been halted by a cybersecurity researcher who, by registering a domain with a particular name, effectively activated a “kill switch” in the malware software that stops it from spreading further.
Ransomware has become the biggest threat to organisations and governments trying to protect critical infrastructure. According to a study by IBM ransomware attacks increased by 6,000% in 2016 and at least 40% of spam emails now carry ransomware. The study also found that 70% of businesses infected with ransomware would pay the ransom. In many cases, this is because they either did not have backups, or they believed it was a faster way of getting their business back up and running.
The NHS has come in for particular criticism about the consequences of the attack because they knew about the risks and had been warned repeatedly to take steps to protect their networks and computers.
Finding out who was behind the malware is going to be very difficult. The malware communicates using the anonymising Tor network and demands payments in the equally anonymous currency, bitcoin, making tracing those behind the attack more complicated.
The NSA has also been held partly to blame for the attack because it had not alerted Microsoft about the weakness in its system until the NSA’s software that exploited it had been stolen and leaked to the public. Had the NSA told Microsoft when it discovered the weakness, the patch to fix the vulnerability would have been available in enough time for even the slowest of organisations to have patched their computers.
Ironically, large scale attacks such as these do have the effect of highlighting the threat of malware attacks and cybersecurity in general. This is true at the national level as well as amongst businesses. The frequency and scale of attacks also gives us a measure of how effectively companies and countries are prepared for cybersecurity attacks of any kind. Governments can act to enforce cybersecurity protective measures on companies, especially those that provide critical services or infrastructure. They can also act to direct their security services to disclose weaknesses in software systems, rather than keeping them secret in order to exploit them themselves against some future enemy.
Companies and their employees can help protect themselves from future attacks of ransomware by taking the following steps:
- Back up computers. This doesn’t stop a computer from being attack but effectively renders it ineffective because it is easy to re-install the system from a backup should it become locked by ransomware.
- Don’t click on links in emails unless you are expecting the email to contain a link. If you don’t know, double check with the sender. Equally, if you open a document and it asks to run macros, just say no. Avoid putting people into this situation in the first place by not sending links unless you have agreed prior to sending the email.
- Always update systems and software with the latest security updates. Better still, set the system to automatically do this on your behalf.
- Use antivirus software to protect systems.
- If infected, disconnect the computer from the network so that other computers are not infected.
The United States’ unilateral missile strikes against a Syrian airforce base are a dramatic escalation of its participation in that country’s civil war. The US government has attacked a Syrian government asset for the first time.
The attack also marks Donald Trump’s first major foreign policy test as US president. It represents a 180-degree shift from his previous position of opposing intervention in Syria. And the sudden about-face sends a worrying signal for how his administration may handle future crises in international relations.
On Thursday, the US unilaterally launched strikes against the al-Shayrat airforce base in Homs. This base primarily houses Mig-23 and SU-22 strike craft and Mig-25 interceptors.
The attack consisted of 59 sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles, which targeted airframes and supporting infrastructure. It reportedly led to casualties among Syrian military personnel.
Unlike the actions of his predecessor, Barack Obama, prior to the 2012 Libya intervention, Trump sought no international legal sanction for the strike.
The attack has been justified as a punitive response to the Syrian military’s likely use of sarin chemical nerve agents against civilians in Idlib province. This led to at least 70 deaths and drew worldwide condemnation.
The Idlib incident was a much smaller repeat of a major sarin deployment in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta in 2013. That attack led to hundreds of civilian deaths – many of them children.
The Ghouta atrocity led the US to the brink of war with Syria; the Syrian government was alleged to have crossed Obama’s infamous “red line”. Ultimately, however, diplomatic manoeuvring by senior US, Russian and Syrian officials de-escalated the situation. They were able to negotiate the apparent dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons program.
Recent events, however, suggest this dismantling was not as extensive as previously thought.
Trump’s humanitarian intervention?
What’s concerning is how the strikes have been rationalised. Trump has described the strikes as aimed at protecting a “vital national security interest”. However, this appears to contradict one of the fundamental themes that buoyed Trump’s rise to power.
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump emphasised the need to embrace a transactional approach to foreign relations that placed little value on human rights.
The then-presidential candidate was criticised for appearing to be open to accommodating the anti-human-rights predilections of authoritarian rulers provided they served US economic and security interests.
Trump condemned the Obama administration’s response to the Ghouta attacks when strikes were under consideration. He explicitly and repeatedly indicated that, as president, he would adopt a non-interventionist position in Syria in spite of the humanitarian crisis.
However, the strikes clearly contradict this position. Trump now claims intervention was a matter of “vital national security interest”.
Given the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons threatened no US citizens – nor allies – one is left to conclude that preventing further use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians is now seen as vital to US national security.
This view is itself dubious and inconsistent with a conflict where the US has largely turned a blind eye to half-a-million dead Syrian civilians over the past six years. The US has increasingly contributed to this toll in recent weeks.
A worrying precedent
A point of concern for some has been Trump’s inability to fully grasp the consequences of his actions and his general reflexiveness to the conditions he confronts. As with many of his domestic policy promises on the campaign trail, Trump’s Syria stance appears to be a flip-flop.
Shifts in domestic and foreign policy are generally to be expected and afforded some latitude as a candidate transitions to the presidency. But the degree and speed of Trump’s foreign policy switches are of serious concern.
Unpredictability in international relations has particularly high stakes. It can lead to rapid escalations, collapse of long-term relationships and partnerships, and even war.
This is of particular concern in Syria, given the close proximity of Russian forces actively fighting to defend the Assad regime.
The US apparently ultimately alerted (telling, not asking) Russia to the strikes against the Syrian regime. Yet the speed with which such an operation was organised, along with its unilateral and non-consultative nature, does little to dispel the fears of foreign policy realists about the Trump administration’s inconsistent and chaotic approach to world affairs.
The US military’s strikes only intensify that debate. Will the system ultimately force Trump to fall in line with a more consistent and predictable approach to foreign relations? Or will the policy bedlam ultimately prove sustainable, and make unpredictability the new norm in the international system?