TSG IntelBrief: Terror Strikes London
March 23, 2017
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On March 22, an unidentified British-born male killed at least three people in an attack just outside British Parliament that involved a vehicle and a knife.
• Police are treating the incident as an act of terrorism; the attack bears similarities to a number of recent unsophisticated attacks across the West.
• British security services have dealt with a heightened terror threat level for years, and have disrupted dozens of plots.
• Overloaded threat matrices make the detection and disruption of unsophisticated attacks extremely difficult, even when the attacker was previously known to authorities; the threat of similar attacks will remain high for the foreseeable future.
On the one-year anniversary of the terror attacks in Brussels, an attack in London showed the risk of terrorism has continued to increase despite massive efforts to counter the threat. On March 22, an unidentified British-born male drove a car onto the sidewalk of the Westminster Bridge, killing three people and wounding at least 40 more. After crashing the car into a gate outside of British Parliament, the attacker killed a police officer with a knife who was trying to prevent his entrance into the area. The attacker was subsequently shot and killed by other police officers.
The attack was sadly familiar to other recent acts of terrorism in the West. A wholly unsophisticated—yet high-impact—attack shocked the heart of a major city; pedestrians were targeted with a car, as seen in attacks in Nice, Berlin, and Ohio State University. Police have said the attacker, who has not yet been named as authorities work to quickly investigate his associates, was known to law enforcement, and that authorities were working on the assumption that the attack was ‘Islamist-related terrorism.’ While the attack involved one attacker—at least in the execution stage—it is too early to label it a ‘lone wolf’ attack. Though the majority of recent terror attacks in the West have lacked the formal ‘command and control’ once associated with classic international terrorism, most attackers have engaged in some level of communication, inspiration, or even direction from members of groups such as the Islamic State or al-Qaeda. British officials are now pouring through databases and the history—both physical and electronic—of the attacker and his friends, family, and associates.
As a number of recent attacks in the West have demonstrated, the identity of the attacker is rarely a case of complete surprise for authorities. Most individuals involved in recent terror attacks attracted the attention of authorities at some point prior to the attack, whether for terror-related investigations or other criminal behavior. Many of those who go on to commit acts of terrorism associate with other known terror sympathizers to varying degrees. Still, overloaded threat matrices and overcrowded terror databases make detecting and disrupting actual plots extremely difficult—particularly when they involve highly unsophisticated modes of attack. As the vast majority of individuals in the West investigated for ties to terrorism will never go on to commit an act of violence, connecting the dots of events that precipitated a successful attack is often only easy or obvious in hindsight.
Western intelligence agencies and security services have worked tirelessly to increase their capacity to detect and disrupt plots leading to larger-scale attacks such as Paris or Brussels. Yet, no matter how capable and effective counterterrorism agencies are, attacks such as the one in London can still occur. Even in cases where the attacker was known to authorities, if he had not crossed necessary criminal thresholds prior to the attack, such incidents are exceedingly difficult to detect and disrupt. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies prioritize risks based on information available at the time and allocate resources accordingly. There is very little opportunity for law enforcement to detect a plot that involves driving a car on a public bridge and then veering up onto the sidewalk. Unfortunately, the simplicity encourages similar attacks, and the threat of such attacks will remain high for the foreseeable future.
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