Floral tributes are attached to railings in Parliament Square following the attack in Westminster, central London, March 2017.
Floral tributes are attached to railings in Parliament Square following the attack in Westminster, central London, March 2017. 
Stefan Wermuth / REUTERS

It was always a matter of when, and not if, the United Kingdom was going to suffer another terrorist attack. The death toll from the strike in Westminster stands at four, with dozens more injured. The perpetrator was Khalid Masood, a British citizen and convert to Islam. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has released a statement describing Masood as “an Islamic State soldier” who “carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of the coalition.”

The United Kingdom has long been a target for Islamist extremists. The July 2005 bombings targeting the London transport network (which killed 52) and the stabbing to death of drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013 are evidence, as are the approximately 850 people who have traveled from the country to Syria to fight for ISIS and other radical groups.

However, this only scratches the surface. In virtually every year since 9/11, the United Kingdom has either thwarted or suffered a major terrorist attack. Many were tied to al Qaeda and had their origins in Pakistan. The fertilizer bomb plot of 2004, the transatlantic liquid bomb plot of 2006, and the Easter bomb plot of 2009 are all such examples. Other attacks had their origins in the Levant. Car bombs and a suicide attack in London and Glasgow in 2007 were carried out by the ISIS’s precursor group, al Qaeda in Iraq. Terrorist acts planned from Syria in 2015 forced the United Kingdom to carry out a successful drone strike against one of its own citizens in response, the first time it has ever done so.


In confronting the threat of terrorism, London has been anything but passive. Overseas, it has committed its military to war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria and carried out counterterrorism training in Somalia and Mali.

In confronting the threat of terrorism, London has been anything but passive.

Domestically, there have been 264 convictions in British courts for Islamism-inspired terrorism offenses. The Home Office has developed both a counterterrorism strategy and a counter-extremism strategy. The security services are monitoring over 3,000 people in the United Kingdom who are suspected of being willing to commit attacks. MI5, MI6, GCHQ (the United Kingdom’s domestic, foreign, and signals intelligence agencies), and the police work together effectively; the intelligence turf wars that blight other European countries are not nearly as pronounced there.

In 2014, then-Home Secretary (and current Prime Minister) Theresa May was able to push through measures to strip British terror suspects of their citizenship if they were dual nationals or if given reasonable cause to believe they could acquire another nationality. The United Kingdom has also been able to deport some foreign terror suspects (although entrenched opposition from the courts on human rights grounds has been a constant roadblock).

This was part of the reason that, in 2005, the Labour government introduced Control Orders. These were subsequently modified by the coalition government, and were renamed Terrorism Prevention and Investigative Measures (TPIMs) in 2011. TPIMs (and Control Orders beforehand) target terror suspects who cannot be charged or deported, allowing the state to confiscate the suspects’ passports, prevent them from associating with certain other suspects or going to certain mosques, stop them from using certain types of electronic devices, and impose a curfew on them.

In the ideological sphere, the counter-radicalization Prevent program, which was introduced by the Labour government in 2003 but only really fleshed out post 2006, aims to “stop people from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.” Prevent allows local government, the police, schools, universities, prisons, hospitals, and Muslim communities to work together to identify and challenge Islamist extremist ideology (although Prevent focuses on all forms of extremism). One increasingly important part of Prevent is Channel, an intervention process intended to draw individuals away from terrorism. It has had thousands of referrals in the last decade.

The United Kingdom’s response to Islamic terrorism has been far from perfect. Yet such measures—as well as the presence of the English Channel, the United Kingdom’s decision not to be part of the Schengen Area and its caution in accepting large numbers of refugees—has meant that London has been able to protect itself more effectively than other capitals.


There is more to be done. Masood was already on the British intelligence radar, and so MI5 will be analyzing what more it could have done to prevent the attack and others like it in the future. Despite funding increases, of course, MI5 cannot track all potential attackers. The Head of MI5 has previously stated that they can only “hit the crocodiles nearest the boat” and Masood was not regarded as an imminent threat. No security agency gets it right every time, nor can it be expected to. It is impossible to stop all radicalized individuals who have a desire to kill from renting a car or buying a knife.

Yet there are areas for the government to focus its efforts. For starters, the need to dismantle the so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria is clear. While retaining its focus on ISIS, the United Kingdom cannot ignore the dangers posed by al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Domestically, there is a clear trend of those with a history of petty or violent crime graduating to acts of terrorism. To this end, the government must prioritize addressing radicalization in prison and preventing the dissemination of extremist literature in these prisons. In addition, authorities have been aware since at least 2001 that terrorists fraudulently use state benefits to fund terrorist activity. It is unacceptable that this still takes place with some regularity.

Although Masood was 52 years old, the reality is that ISIS is focusing on ever younger recruits to carry out attacks in the West and using encrypted messaging apps in order to do so. The British government has to try and make young people resilient to the appeal of this ideology. The education system will be an important part of this response. Although better communication of British values and a broader understanding of British history may be no panacea to radicalism, it is likely to do more good than harm. The government must also must ensure that it works closely with technology firms to diminish the impact of ISISonline activities; it also needs to ensure GCHQ has the capacity to respond to them.

Ultimately, however, these are peripheral battles as long as Islamism is seen as a viable ideology. It is unfortunate, for example, that the Foreign & Commonwealth Office recently submitted evidence to a U.K. Foreign Affairs Committee examining the Muslim Brotherhood that some forms of Islamism embrace “democratic principles and liberal values.” This is the soft bigotry of low expectations. There is no evidence that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have any dedication to liberal values as they would be commonly understood in the West. Indeed, genuine liberals are sidelined due to the perception that they are not “credible voices.”

Perhaps Masood’s attack will contribute to a change in attitude in the United Kingdom. It should. Only a robust, uncompromising response across the board to the dangers of Islamist ideologyfrom the state, media, and wider civil society—can ensure that the latest bloodshed in London is not a harbinger of worse to come in the future.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now