Late last week, U.K. counterterrorism police arrested four British men. Unusually, however, these arrests took place over a number of hours and involved armed police. Normally in the U.K., suspects are arrested simultaneously, and by unarmed officers.
This break from standard procedure means that authorities believed that a time-sensitive attack — perhaps involving this weekend’s Remembrance Day ceremonies — was planned, a concern fueled by the recent war-memorial attack in Ottawa.
Then, on Saturday, the Sun newspaper reported that the suspects had intended to use knives to assassinate the Queen of England. According to the Sun, the Queen was to be attacked at a remembrance service on Saturday evening.
Fortunately, Saturday’s ceremony and Sunday’s wreath-laying service in Westminster both concluded without incident. That being said, the apparent plot raises several major concerns.
First, it again proves the narrow precipice between successful intelligence operations and potentially catastrophic attacks. As I’ve explained over the past year, British authorities are gravely concerned by the diverse terrorist threat they face. This is no small issue. Consider the latest plot. While dignitary protection is inherently complicated, U.K. VIP security details are far smaller than those in the United States. This was illustrated a couple of weeks ago when a jogger accidentally ran into British prime minister David Cameron. Watch the video. With only a few bodyguards available, Cameron was left defenseless as his detail moved to secure the jogger. What might have happened if four attackers had swarmed him simultaneously? With the Queen’s security detail of a similar size, had she been attacked, this Monday afternoon the U.K.’s monarch of nearly 63 years, Queen Elizabeth II, might now be dead. That would be the British equivalent of the Kennedy assassination.
Yet U.K. jihadists are problematic not just in their diverse actionable intents but in their varied groups. At present, hundreds of British citizens are fighting alongside Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria, and hundreds have already returned to the U.K. But a significant number of young British men also remain attracted to the cause of jihad in Pakistan. Indeed, a Pakistan link seems to have been operative in this weekend’s plot. (Al-Qaeda has long sought to assassinate U.K. officials.) And that speaks to a broader issue. Buried by the media maelstrom surrounding ISIS, al-Qaeda-aligned groups continue to recruit, train, and orientate British citizens toward domestic terrorism. As I noted recently, facing hundreds of priority suspects, U.K. officials face impossible choices about where to devote precious investigative resources. Moreover, desperate to conceal their sources and methods, British officials are — unlike the FBI — reluctant to arrest suspects until the last minute (as seems to have been the case last week).
Still, when considering U.K. domestic terrorism, it’s not enough to simply assess the threat. One must also contemplate the cesspool of extremism that breeds this threat— because in the U.K., as in many other European nations, British citizens are finding existential meaning in brutal Islamist terrorism. The roots of this extremism were planted in the 1960s when, emigrating to the U.K. in large numbers, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis suffered prejudice both from white working-class communities and from Britain’s class establishment. In response, these immigrants grouped together in socially isolated, homogeneous communities. Their separation from British identity was thus indirectly encouraged by the British state. With time, separated from British society, and perceiving personal prejudice and restricted social mobility, a minority of Muslim young men turned to hardline Wahhabi and, later, Salafi imams. These imams manipulated the social discontentment toward a “purposeful” cause of religious fundamentalism. For an even smaller minority, fundamentalist sentiment eventually transitioned into Takfiri extremist ideology. And today, this ideological infection has bred those who find ordained virtue in the murder of 88-year-old women.
Reflecting the deeper social ills, in many European nations (France being the most troubling example), Islamist extremism now faces off against unpleasant white nationalism from groups like the English Defense League and France’s Front National (which polled first in France’s recent European elections). At the extremist edges, the social fractures are deepening.
The result of all this?
While another jihadist attack has been prevented, Britain is likely to suffer its domestic-security nightmare for the foreseeable future.
— Tom Rogan, based in Washington, D.C., is a columnist for the Daily Telegraph and a contributor to The McLaughlin Group. He holds the Tony Blankley Chair at the Steamboat Institute and tweets @TomRtweets.