British Counterterrorism After the Election

The Meaning of May's Plans

British Prime Minister Theresa May in London, April 2017. Stefan Wermuth / REUTERS

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a snap election, a move meant to strengthen her hand in the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations, ended up rendering her future as prime minister uncertain. Whoever leads the United Kingdom in the coming months, however, won’t just have Brexit at the top of the agenda. Counterterrorism policy may well take center stage.

The attacks that punctuated the election campaign illustrate the scale of this task. In Manchester, a suicide bomber set off a sophisticated homemade bomb; in London, a group of three terrorists carried out a low-tech attack using a van and knives. Both incidents may have been connected to conflict zones in Libya and Syria and came soon after a previous van and knife attack in London in March. But the recent attacks have not been limited to supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS). Earlier this week, a 47-year-old white male drove a van into a crowd of worshippers who had left Finsbury Park mosque in London, fuelling fears of a rise in far-right, anti-Muslim terrorism. Witnesses reported that the Finsbury Park attacker shouted, “I want to kill all Muslims” during the assault.

Three issues in security policy dominated the election campaign and will remain at the center of the security debate: the allocation of counterterrorism resources for policing, intelligence, and prevention work; the balance of state powers in relation to human rights and civil liberties; and the nature and consequences of London’s policies toward Muslim-majority countries. In all these areas, continuity is the most probable outcome. May’s reappointments of Amber Rudd at the Home Office, Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, and Michael Fallon as secretary of defense reinforce this likelihood. Michael Gove’s return to the cabinet may also prove significant: although Gove now serves as environment secretary, he is known for his hard-line views on Islamism and was a driving force behind former Prime Minister David Cameron’s counterextremism policies. It is likely that May’s

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