Terror threat in Europe
On the eve of the national elections, Britain was hit by another terrorist attack on June 3 when a group of attackers drove a van into pedestrians on London Bridge and then stabbed bystanders with knives. While the police stopped the assailants by shooting them, the attack left seven people dead and nearly 50 injured.
This was the latest, with two other similar attacks occurring in Britain within three months. The first was when an attacker drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge on March 22, before stabbing a policeman to death. Then a suicide bomber blew himself up at a concert hall in Manchester, killing 22 people on May 22. While the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed responsibility for both the London Bridge and Westminster Bridge attacks, it also congratulated the Manchester attack.
Similar attacks occurred in several European cities such as Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Nice and Stockholm in the last couple of years. Altogether they indicate toward a new wave of terror in Europe with different means. They also imply a weak understanding of root causes of global terror in general and an even weaker understanding of the growing threat of homegrown radicalism in Europe.
Moreover, they suggest a general lack of effective counterterrorism strategies and response plans. Perpetrators of these attacks were European born and bred, who radicalized through internet and global jihadist cells. Most of them at one time or another seek out other jihadists and/or travel to the regions where they are fighting “infidels.”
What makes them different is that they return and find mundane ways to hurt people in their home countries. Their strategy is not to terrorize societies by spectacular attacks with as many deaths as possible, such as the 9/11 attacks in the U.S., which requires long term planning, global support base and international perpetrators, but increase anxiety among societies with many individual attacks by locals using simple means. The perpetrators of the London Bridge rampage wore fake suicide vests and used basic weapons like knives. Their main aim appears to be eroding public trust in their government and security forces to prevent further attacks of this kind. Clearly it is very difficult to prevent such attacks with everyday tools, such as cars and knives.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May declared that she, if re-elected, will increase the country’s counterterrorism strategy by tougher policies to crackdown extremism. The strict surveillance of social media might constitute a part of the solution, as suggested by May, but there appears varying motivations behind the attackers, as they seemed to be inspired not only by terrorist groups like ISIL, but also by the general hostile rhetoric in their home countries. That is why a crucial part of the preventive measures need to address populist and discriminatory political atmosphere inside the country. Refraining from associating terrorist activities with a specific religion might be a good starting point to prevent further imitators to appear.
The unprecedented pace and the extent of recent attacks across Europe also necessitate collective action, as most of the perpetrators appear to be under surveillance in their home countries for suspicious behavior on connections, they were able to travel back and forth to ISIL territory through European countries, and not enough intelligence sharing occurred. While the EU has tried to ensure an effective response through the creation of the European Counter Terrorism Centre in January 2016, member countries are still reluctant to transfer their authority on this area to the EU level, and the Brexit could further hamper such actions. Maybe they should consider starting cooperation at least with wider information-sharing.