Following the third terror attack in the United Kingdom in two-and-a-half months, on Sunday British Prime Minister Theresa May went before the cameras to declare that “enough is enough” and outline a new round of anti-terrorism legislation. She pinned the blame for Britain’s vulnerability to terrorism on excessive toleration of extremist ideology—citing the “safe spaces” that exist online, and in British society generally, protecting the open expression of Islamist extremism. Addressing the problem, she said, will require “difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations.” 

The string of recent violence began on March 22 with an attack in Westminster, near the British Parliament. A 52-year-old convert to Islam, Khaled Masood, used a white van to strike pedestrians on a bridge. He then ran on foot into Parliament’s New Palace Yard, where he killed a guard before he was shot. On May 22 came the suicide bombing at a concert in Manchester, which was attended mainly by young girls and women. Salman Abedi, the bomber, was a local man who had traveled to Libya with his family some months earlier. He had returned to Manchester just four days prior to the attack.

The latest tragedy came last Saturday when, again, terrorists used a white rental van to mow down several people, this time on the London Bridge. The jihadists got out of the van, pulled out 12-inch-long hunting knives, and proceeded to attack patrons at a popular bar area on the South Bank. Gruesome eyewitness accounts suggested that the terrorists were imitating the methods of beheading popularized by the Islamic State (ISIS) in its videos. The mayhem lasted less than ten minutes before police shot the attackers. The three men on London Bridge wore fake suicide vests that triggered a “shoot-to-kill” order. Speculation is that the imitation vests were meant to deter bystanders from tackling them during the attack.

As a result of these three strikes, 34 people have been killed and many more injured. All five perpetrators are dead, only the Manchester suicide bomber by his own hand.

In the short term, the “embarrassing conversations” that May mentioned will likely have to concern the ability of the British police and intelligence services to cope with the United Kingdom’s terrorism problem. Both the Westminster attacker and the Manchester suicide bomber were known to the authorities. And at least one of the London Bridge terrorists, Khuram Shazad Butt, was a familiar figure not only to the police, but also to television viewers from his appearance on a documentary featured on British TV called “The Jihadis Next Door.”

Both the Westminster attacker and the Manchester suicide bomber were known to the authorities.

Butt, who became infamous over the weekend as the dead man on the bridge in the Arsenal shirt, was a follower of Anjem Choudary, a preacher who for 15 years led the banned terrorist group Islam4UK and other radical groups until he was sent to jail for five-and-a-half years in 2016. The portrait of Butt as related by his neighbors is ambiguous. Some have spoken about how nice he was, playing with the kids on the street; others told journalists that they had previously called the UK’s anti-terror hotline to report him. One of these was a mother who phoned in two years ago to complain that the suspect had tried to radicalize her child.

Butt has been called the ringleader of the attack. Little is known about the second man named, Rachid Redouane. The third was Youssef Zaghba, a Moroccan-Italian man, who was working in a restaurant in London. His name was first reported in Italian media and then confirmed by the British authorities. He was reportedly stopped in 2016 on his way to Turkey to attempt to join ISIS. Zaghba was not on MI5's radar according to a statement released this morning, but the Italian authorities had placed him on their risk list and have said that they informed British and Moroccan authorities about his movements. If accurate, this information will cast an even worse light on the ability of British police to track suspected extremists. Individuals who have been stopped trying to reach ISIS are known to be high-risk. 

Two of the three London attackers killed by police, Khuram Shazad Butt (L) and Rachid Redouane, June 2017.
Two of the three London attackers killed by police, Khuram Shazad Butt (L) and Rachid Redouane, June 2017.

The failure to manage Abedi, the 22-year old Manchester suicide bomber, raises questions that are even more embarrassing. According to news reports, MI5, the United Kingdom’s domestic intelligence agency, was alerted multiple times about Abedi. And in January, the FBI allegedly informed the British authorities that Abedi was plotting an attack in the United Kingdom in collaboration with an ISIS cell in Libya. The suicide vest that Abedi used in the Manchester attack matched the model used by bombers during the November 13, 2015, attacks in Paris.

Abedi was allegedly trained to construct the vest in Libya, and he actually made it after returning to Manchester four days before the attack. Seventeen people have been arrested in connection with the strike. Among them are his father, Ramadan, and brother, Hashem. Their arrests revealed that the attack was linked to the ISIS affiliate in Libya. It is known that the Abedi family moved from Libya to Manchester after the father received political refugee status because of his history of opposition to the government of Muammar al-Qaddafi. In 1993–95, the father was part of a contingent of jihadist fighters in Bosnia. He is alleged to have been a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a cell formed in 1995 by Libyans living in exile, many of them in London. In 2011, the family returned to Libya. BBC Newsnight reported that the then-16-year-old Abedi fought against the Qaddafi regime with his father during the school holidays.

Abedi Jr. also had close friends among a contingent from Manchester that went to Syria to join ISIS. The friends included names familiar to British authorities: Raphael Hostey, Mohammed Javeed, and Khalil Raoufi—the Manchester boys who died fighting for ISIS in Syria. Hostey was killed in a drone attack in 2016. Raoufi died in 2014 in combat in Syria. Javeed was killed in a suicide attack in Iraq later the same year. Sixteen known individuals who traveled to ISIS have come from the Manchester area, all living within a two-mile radius of each other. 

Abedi is also connected to Abdal Raouf Abdallah, whom he visited in prison before the Manchester bombing. Abdallah fought in Libya in 2011 with a jihadist group and was wounded. He returned to the United Kingdom after receiving medical care in Germany. Now a quadriplegic, Abdallah went on to recruit volunteers to fight with ISIS—and was convicted and incarcerated for his efforts.

What the Abedi and Butt cases should make abundantly clear is that jihadist networks are formed in real life, through contacts that span generations and continents. Even when the terrorists come from next door, there is still often an international connection.

British Prime Minister Theresa May drinks water during a campaign speech in London, June 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May drinks water during a campaign speech in London, June 2017.
Hannah Mckay / Reuters

After May’s speech calling for stronger police enforcement powers, The Times of London quickly came back with revelations that several existing measures to strengthen policing have hardly been used or have been overturned by the courts. A new rule that allows the government to refuse lawful British residents re-entry to the country after fighting with jihadist groups abroad has been used only once in two years. The rule was harshly criticized by countries that feared they would be stuck helping the British police deal with the growing threat from returnees from ISIS strongholds in Syria and Iraq. It would seem that under the rule, Abedi could have been refused re-entry into the United Kingdom on the grounds that he was a known combatant for jihadists in Libya. He wasn’t, though.

This is a familiar pattern. Something happens that puts the police in a bad light for its failure to protect the public, and then there is a push for stricter laws. May’s proposals will include, it appears, more of the same: bans on groups that currently fall outside the existing criteria for proscribed terrorist organizations, e.g. street preachers; disruption orders against people who incite hatred, which would preclude extremists from speaking in public; and closure orders to shut down premises used to host extremist meetings or speakers. The courts are unlikely to be supportive of these rules which all, in one way or another, target speech. 

Like the rest of Europe, the United Kingdom is dealing with mistakes made years ago. Far too many European governments and police forces, including the British, were happy to see the backs of militants when they left to join ISIS. The reasoning was that it would be cheaper and easier to let them terrorize people somewhere else. But people can come back, and even if they don’t, they leave sympathizers and admirers behind.

In her speech on Sunday, May shifted blame to the Internet. “We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed…Yet, that is precisely what the internet, and the big companies that provide internet-based services provide.” Blaming the Internet is too easy. And its openness is a virtue. It is often the first place to look for clues of suspects’ progressive radicalization. Making Google responsible for policing the Internet, which is what May is proposing to do, simply displaces conversations to encrypted apps such as Telegram. This is comparable to removing all the fire alarms from your house so you don’t have to hear them go off.

The British go to the polls on Thursday, and they are angry over the apparent inability of the government and its security services to prevent terrorist attacks. It is understandable that May would want to offer proposals for sharpening anti-terrorism policy. But panicky promises made in the middle of a political campaign are guaranteed to lead to ineffective policies. The public needs to be re-assured that reporting someone to a hotline actually triggers an investigation—but also be told that calling the police to say someone is a “bad man” does not grant the police a license to arrest that person.  Excuses that police are already overburdened will not do. If there are too many suspects to cope with, make the case and get a judge to put an electronic bracelet on returnees from foreign fighting, and on their fan boys and girls at home. Science can help. Investments must be made in better protocols for risk assessments of suspected militants and better training of those who conduct these assessments. The authorities need to be able to make better decisions about who to watch around the clock. And social workers and probation officers need to go and knock on doors.

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  • JYTTE KLAUSEN is a Fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington D.C. and the Lawrence A. Wien Professor of International Cooperation at Brandeis University.
  • More By Jytte Klausen