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.
Just when the Western world had absorbed the shock of a truck attack in Berlin in December that claimed 12 lives, it is reminded again of the dangers of “lone-wolf” attacks inspired by Islamic State (IS) that are almost impossible to guard against.
When a sole attacker drove randomly across London’s Westminster Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament – one of the most trafficked thoroughfares in the Western world – killing and maiming innocent bystanders, it served as a reminder, if that were required, that open, global cities are vulnerable to such attacks.
These are moments that serve as a reality check for those in authority who are striving to maintain a balance between oppressive policing and surveillance and a free society. This is enormously challenging in an environment in which strains of fanaticism have been let loose.
Regrettably, the London terrorist attack leading to five deaths, including the perpetrator and a policeman, will find its way into a racially tinged political discourse – and not in a way that will be particularly edifying.
But there is also no point in pretending that mayhem in the Middle East can be separated from what takes place on the streets of London or Brussels or Berlin or Nice, or in other places that become victims of continuing upheaval in a crescent that stretches from the Mediterranean to South Asia.
Now that the weapon of choice for lone-wolf terrorists seems to have become a vehicle to mow down people innocently going about their business, a policing task becomes even more difficult.
Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert, noted in a post for CNN that as long ago as 2010, al Qaeda’s Yemen branch had encouraged its recruits in the West to use vehicles as weapons.
A headline on its webzine, Inspire, had described vehicles as “the ultimate mowing nachine” – not to “mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah”. He wrote:
These attacks are hard to defend against in free societies where crowds will gather, as was the case for Bastille Day in Nice, or the Christmas market in Berlin … and now throngs of tourists and visitors that typically crowd the sidewalks around the Houses of Parliament.
The utter cynicism and brutality of these random low-tech attacks pose enormous challenges for security.
This latest episode will not be the last such vehicle attack with the possibility that something much worse might eventuate, including the detonation of a truck packed with explosives and shards of shrapnel. Open Western cities will always be vulnerable to these sorts of attacks.
The threat of IS-inspired terrorism is now embedded in Western societies. It is no good pretending it is not.
Since 2014, when IS proclaimed its caliphate, there have been more than 70 terrorist attacks “conducted or inspired” by its followers in 20 countries (not including Syria and Iraq), according to a running total kept by CNN.
If Syria and Iraq were added, such terrorist attacks would number in the hundreds.
In 2014, CNN lists seven terrorist incidents, including the stabbing of two Australian police officers in New South Wales. Six died and 12 were injured in 2014, in Belgium, Australia, Canada, the US and France.
That was the beginning.
By 2016, the numbers of casualties from IS-inspired terrorism had risen sharply across the Middle East and in Europe. This included the Brussels bombings at a metro station and an airport, in which 32 people died and 340 were injured.
It is not least of macabre coincidences that the London terrorist attack occurred on the first anniversary to the day of the Brussels bombings.
So far this year, there have been five major incidents. Most, if not all, are linked to IS.
London was the first such episode in continental Europe. The others occurred in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Out of all this, it is a depressing conclusion, but as IS in its strongholds in Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria is further degraded, chances are it will step up its terrorist activities elsewhere.
In other words, risks to countries involved in the war against IS will rise as its fortunes in its so-called caliphate slide. IS is on the ropes in its Middle Eastern strongholds. This makes it more dangerous to Western interests.
In London, and among Britain’s allies, political leaders have hastened to express solidarity, but all would be aware that such ritualistic professions of support and concern will not provide a foolproof shield against the next Islamist-inspired terrorist attack.
The question is not if, but when and where.
It appears to be increasingly common that terrorist attacks not of the lone-wolf variety involve members of the same family.
Some of them, like the San Bernardino attack last December, are committed by married couples or romantic partners.
But quite a few recent terrorist atrocities – the Charlie Hebdo attack, the Boston Marathon bombings and now Tuesday’s Brussels attacks – have been perpetrated by siblings. So is there a link between within-family radicalisation and acts of terrorism? And is terrorism different from any other crime in this respect?
Both genetics and environment are known to influence criminal behaviour. But the exact nature of these influences and their relative importance are still being debated.
It can be expected, therefore, that genes contribute to terrorist behaviour. But it is wrong to conclude that just because two individuals have a common genetic make-up, one will follow the other if the other becomes a terrorist. Instances of only one family member displaying criminal behaviour are very common.
Nevertheless, there may be environmental factors that contribute to and interact with genetics to cause terrorist behaviour. If so, one would expect to find more terrorist acts than other kinds of criminal acts committed by members of the same family. Family members share both genetics and environment to a greater extent than people in general.
Studies of the militant extremist mindset provide clues to why we can expect to find more siblings among terrorist cells. From the three components of this mindset, only one – “nastiness” – is directly linked to other varieties of criminal behaviour.
Violent criminals of any kind tend to strongly advocate harsh punishment of their enemies. For example, they are more likely than most people to approve of physical punishment for insulting one’s honour.
While both genetics and environment may be implicated in “nastiness”, the other two components of the militant mindset – “grudge” and “excuse” – represent environmental influences to a greater extent. These are usually the focus of recruiters.
An important component of radicalisation is a strong feeling that the group one belongs to is under threat from some other group – that is, the person feels a “grudge” of some kind. A common example is the feeling that the West has exploited and hurt “my” people, and this needs to be avenged.
Sometimes grudge is more general and not oriented towards a particular group. The person simply feels that this world is unfair and full of injustices.
“Excuse” is a dressing-up part of extremism. It relies on religious and ideological “higher moral principles” to justify the feelings of nastiness and grudge.
It follows from the nature of the militant extremist mindset that we can expect to find more siblings among terrorists. This is because such attacks tend to be carried out by people who are more ready for action and are prepared to be vicious in dealing with their enemies. This tends to be a shared characteristic of criminal family members.
Being raised together – and therefore being exposed to the same set of stories about the enemies and the same set of moral, ideological and religious reasons justifying their feeling of hate – is likely to contribute significantly to the same tendency.
And then there is a feeling of trust, due to a common upbringing and feelings stronger than typical camaraderie when you are doing something together with somebody who is close to you. Overall, it is likely that there will be more instances of siblings committing terrorist attacks.
From a security point of view, it may be reasonable to ask whether this tendency calls for a different approach to detection. There is currently an emphasis on internet-based radicalisation, rather than on person-to-person contacts. Family interactions diminish the role of the former and point to the need to maintain traditional policing methods.
The deadly terror attack in Brussels has again raised the issue of safety and security at airports. But expanding the “security bubble” around airports might not be the best response.
Europe barely had the time to recover from the horror of the Paris attacks last November before another of its capital cities was hit at its heart, presumably by ISIS terrorists.
In a devastated Brussels, investigations are running at full speed and authorities are already flooded with questions about the vulnerability of their critical infrastructure.
Unfortunately, this refrain seems to resurface every time a terrorist attack achieves its goals.
Traditionally, governments respond to these events by setting higher security standards. In this sense, modern airports epitomise the significant improvements that have been achieved in security over the past decades, especially after the September 11 attacks in the US in 2001.
Security screening has proved to be an effective deterrent against acts of terror such as hijacking and bombing. Following a procedure that is typical of security risk management, the security bubble around the vulnerable element – in this case, the airplane – has been progressively expanded in order to keep malicious individuals out.
The sterile area in a modern airport is among the most secure places on Earth. However, the terminal buildings can still be threatened, such as when the Glasgow airport was hit by a vehicle ramming attack in 2007.
In the aftermath, more stringent regulations were put into place to prevent vehicles from getting too close to the terminal buildings. Thus the security bubble was further expanded.
Even so, in 2011 two suicide bombers managed to kill more than 30 people at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport by walking into the baggage claim area and activating their Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). This was an act strikingly similar to what just happened in Brussels.
What should be our response to the latest attack? In the next few days we will probably hear more requests for strengthened airport security. Some might argue for a further expansion of the security bubble in order to cover the check-in area or entrance of the terminal buildings.
Would that be an effective solution? I don’t think so, for three main reasons.
First, the costs associated with the implementation of such a security system would largely outweigh the benefits; the bigger the area, the more expensive its protection.
Second, the associated operational disruptions would require some time (and a lot of patience) to be contained. When the perceived threats are low, people tend to consider security measures as an annoyance rather than a safeguard. Most of time, security awareness is not an ingrained mindset.
Third, and most important, the effectiveness of this new security system would still be questionable. Expanding the bubble would just move its boundaries outwards, with no guarantee that a new attack won’t happen on its edge.
For example, if security were increased before reaching the check-in at the airport, that might cause crowds to gather outside the main doors, and this would present a new target for terrorist attack.
So expanding the bubble would be just another symmetric response to an issue that has proven highly asymmetric.
This last point, in particular, emphasises that the Brussels’ airport attacks are not just a matter of airport security. They involve the need to reconsider our perception of modern security risks.
Airport security works very well these days. The problem is that, especially in some countries, any gathering involving more or less large crowds is a vulnerable target for terrorist attack.
Sport events, public transport, concerts, and even the queue in front of a museum, constitute a potential target for malicious individuals.
This requires governments to adopt a different approach to security. Security management needs to be performed at an asymmetric level, penetrating our societies and engaging terrorists at the individual level.
Random security checkpoints, enhanced intelligence networks and additional investments in street-level security technologies are some examples of asymmetric countermeasures that should be strengthened.
Technology, in particular, seems to be a powerful ally in our fight against terrorism. Especially when technological development is associated with the reduction of security costs.
With attacks like these, the group is seeking to sow fear among its enemies, maintain itself as the forerunner in the global jihadi brand war with al-Qaeda, and maintain the veneer of organisational vigour and vitalism it established with its stunning victories in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
But while the Brussels bombings may have wreaked carnage, they have failed to replicate IS’s triumphalism of 2014. Although not an intuitive conclusion, the attacks are in reality indicative of the group’s growing decline and desperation.
Motivations behind the bombings are likely to be found in the tactical and strategic strains currently being exerted on IS and its wider global network.
The recent arrest of Paris terror attack suspect Salah Abdeslam in Brussels was likely seen as an existential threat to IS-linked cells inside Belgium. The perception of a breach may have driven planners to accelerate operations, for fear that the European authorities could employ critical intelligence gained from Abdeslam to disrupt future attacks.
Such a ticking clock may explain why the terrorists opted for a crude dual-bombing in place of a more sophisticated and co-ordinated hybrid assault similar to that undertaken in Paris in late 2015.
At a broader level, the attacks may also be linked to the immense pressures placed on IS by an array of local, regional and international actors. Collectively, the actions of Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and many other players have translated into a loss of around one-quarter of the group’s territory over the last year.
Kurdish and Iranian-backed Shi’a militias have, in many cases, actively routed the group from its territorial holdings over the last year. Thanks to Iranian and Russian backing, the Syrian army is also exerting increasing pressure on IS. The Syrian army has made recent advances in areas such as Tabqa and Palmyra, signalling a significant shift in the regime’s willingness and capacity to combat IS.
All this has served to dispel much of IS’s mystique and the viability of its mission. In 2014, the group’s emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, could point to IS’s many and exceptional successes to make the case that it was clearly on track to establishing its Islamist utopian ideal. Such apparent evidence in turn allowed the group to garner legitimacy, support, and recruit new members.
Today, such successes are few and far between. Some are now questioning whether IS will even be a significant insurgent player in the Syrian conflict by 2017.
As IS stunned the world with its blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in 2014, there was little need for it to conduct attacks outside the Middle East. Its apparent success and superiority over its local rivals was more than enough to draw large amounts of external support and recruits for its cause.
But as IS has weakened over the past two years, its popularity and freedom of action have become increasingly constrained within its immediacy. In such circumstances, insurgent groups often seek to strike outside their own borders as both a punitive measure and a demonstration of strength to potential supporters.
This was precisely Somalian terrorist group al-Shabaab’s logic when it assaulted Kenya’s Westgate mall in 2013. This story echoes much of what IS is experiencing now.
Under increasing pressure from an African Union occupation force that included large contingents from the Kenyan army, al-Shabaab found itself pushed from its seat of power in Mogadishu into Somalia’s south. Unable to mount a serious offensive on the occupiers, the group opted to strike in Kenya itself. This sent a message that Kenya could not expect to safeguard its own territory as long as it engaged in such perilous dalliances abroad.
We can only expect more such attacks as IS continues to decline and lash out. Some will invariably foil the various security establishments arrayed against them.
But, it is crucial to remember that this type of terrorism is aimed at sowing discord, chaos, suspicion and divisiveness among the multicultural societies it targets. In doing so, IS is seeking to create the conditions in which its message finds more willing supporters among those disenfranchised by such division.
What goes on in the mind of a suicide bomber? What motivates someone to spend their last day on the planet blowing up complete strangers? Bad enough, perhaps, if the strangers in question are soldiers, police, or other representatives of the state. But holidaymakers and commuters?
It takes a special sort of alienation, radicalisation and dehumanisation to think that the people standing next to you in the check-in queue merit being randomly dismembered.
One assumes that the growing number of people who volunteer for these sorts of missions are confident that they are off to paradise. Given that they won’t live to see the results of their zealotry, the logic must be in some way transcendental, and not one available to rational scrutiny or dissuasion by the rest of us.
Either way, if paradise is going to be full of ex-jihadists I’m rather glad I’m not going.
In the meantime, back on earth, the effectiveness of this suicidal strategy is all too clear and painful, especially for those directly affected. Even for the rest of us, the net result is to add yet another level of depressing tedium to our day-to-day existence, as security is increased to ever-higher levels.
No doubt we ought to be grateful to have the opportunity to travel around Europe or spend a long lunch enjoying a bit of intellectual chit-chat in a Parisian café, as I did today. I am – very.
This is, as they say, just about as good as it gets. And that is rather the point of the attacks on the symbolic heartland of Europe as a civilisation and – in today’s case – as an institution.
The freedom of association, expression and thought that is such a distinctive feature of European intellectual and social life is clearly resented by an alarmingly large group of people. Such hitherto taken for granted freedoms are directly threatened by the randomness of terrorism. Last week, for example, I had to queue to have my passport checked on re-entering France – despite arriving from another Schengen area country.
Yes, I realise this is an especially privileged sort of problem and one that evokes little sympathy. But it is another very real manifestation of Europe’s steadily shrinking public space. One doesn’t need to be a starry-eyed cosmopolitan to recognise that passport-free travel is one of Europe’s greatest practical and symbolic achievements.
It takes a particular sort of confidence in one’s neighbours to make such an idea feasible. The Schengen agreement was unlikely to survive the migration crisis; terrorist outrages may seal its fate.
What this suggests is that noble ideas, admirable principles and feelings of human solidarity may only be possible under particular, possibly unique and historically unrepeatable circumstances.
The European project emerged from the greatest trauma that continent has ever known. It ought to be remembered that today’s problems pale into insignificance beside them. Europeans have made remarkable progress over the last 50 years or so – in every sense of the term. It is no wonder so many people want to live there.
And yet it is also painfully apparent that such achievements are being steadily eroded and undermined. EU President Donald Tusk’s suggestion that European solidarity will be a vital part of the response to these events looks like well-intentioned wishful thinking.
The reality seems to be that there are sufficiently large numbers of people in Europe who are prepared to die and slaughter others in an effort to undermine Europe’s greatest achievements. There is, it seems, very little that can be done to stop them.
Depressingly, there is also no basis for negation with zealots who think they are on a mission from God. It’s not even clear – to me, at least – quite what the suicide bombers hope their deaths will actually achieve or what the big plan is.
It’s hard not to think that some of the animus directed toward European civilisation is fuelled by a resentment of just how agreeable and successful it has been for those fortunate enough to be part of it.
No doubt some will consider such views as naïve and Eurocentric. Yes, the French did dreadful things in Algeria, and the Belgians did worse in the Congo.
But even if this is construed as some sort of post-imperial blowback, it looks a bit late, ludicrously out of proportion, and unlikely to do anything other than to make life in Europe miserable, too. But perhaps that’s ultimately the point.