National Security & Defense

Inside Britain’s Three-Part Strategy to Prevent ISIS Attacks

Security personnel train in anti-terror tactics in London, June 30, 2015. (Rob Stothard/Getty)

Across Europe, counterterrorism services are racing to prevent the next Brussels attack — or at least, to prevent as many attacks as possible. The hard truth: Another attack is very likely in the near future. As I noted on Tuesday, ISIS covert-action cells in Europe are unambiguously confident and capable. As you read this, additional cells are readying new attacks. Fortunately, there is hope: Over the past 18 months, through a three-part strategy, the U.K. has prevented numerous domestic attacks. Here’s how.

First, Britain recognized its domestic ISIS threat early on. Witnessing ISIS’s strategic evolution in 2014 toward transnational terrorism, the U.K. rapidly increased its resources against ISIS Syria-based terror threats. This allowed Britain to infiltrate and disrupt terrorist support networks more efficiently than other European nations did, and to do so while those networks were still under construction. MI5 (Britain’s s domestic-intelligence service) and various counterterrorism commands in regional police forces are currently monitoring thousands of extremists. A minority of these terrorist suspects are monitored 24 hours a day by dedicated surveillance teams.

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But even for the U.K. — which has Europe’s finest intelligence services — the art is imperfect. First, ISIS operatives have received extensive counter-surveillance training and thus take unprecedented steps to evade detection — which means that old-school, resource-intensive measures of surveillance (large human surveillance teams, as opposed to technology) are playing a role of renewed importance. Second, there are a lot of terrorists to watch. Their number includes not just ISIS, but also al-Qaeda-related groups and an array of Pakistani extremist organizations. This forces MI5 into challenging choices about where to allocate limited resources. At the same time, while the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — the U.K.’s equivalent to our NSA — is highly skilled at accessing encrypted communications (and works exceptionally closely with the NSA in these efforts), it struggles to do so with sufficient speed. For that reason, the British government has introduced legislation to allow its spies to attain faster approval for accessing encrypted communications. Prior to the Brussels attacks, that legislation was unpopular, but opinion is now shifting.

#share#Second, Britain has bolstered its border security. Throughout modern history, Britain’s great defense against invasion has been the fact that it is an island. And against ISIS, that geographical factor is again proving crucial. While continental EU states are deliberately designed to have porous borders in pursuit of free movement of people, getting into the U.K. requires a boat, or a plane, or a train in a tunnel. And over the last year, the U.K. has invested heavily in various measures to prevent ISIS operatives from breaching its borders. Most notably, the U.K. recently pushed France to reorganize a major migrant camp near the coastal town of Calais. That action was a response to ISIS’s infiltration of migrant routes and its deep and overt desire to target the U.K.

The Calais “Jungle” is only part of the problem. That’s because northern France remains infested with well-organized, well-funded human-smuggling groups. Like their Mexican counterparts, they care little for anything but hard cash — and ISIS external-operations units have an abundance of it.

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There’s another prong to the border-security challenge: guns. Recognizing that ISIS desires to use firearms in U.K. attacks, the National Crime Agency — Britain’s version of the FBI — now prioritizes efforts to disrupt the smuggling of firearms. But because Europe lacks the kind of effective laws and policing against organized crime that the U.S. enjoys, the NCA faces tough odds. While Britain’s intelligence services are renowned for their patient penetration of terrorist/enabler networks (such as smuggling rings), there is still a serious probability that ISIS operatives will meet the right smuggler and get guns to Britain through the Channel.

Third, Britain has improved its “right of boom” (or post-attack) capabilities. Last summer — prior to the Paris attacks — U.K. security services conducted a major counterterrorism exercise involving a Paris-style attack. In this video, you’ll see British Special Forces acting as ISIS fighters to test the London police’s evolving SWAT capabilities. The exercise reflected the concern on the part of the British government that a major ISIS attack is far more likely than not; it has bolstered Britain’s ability to respond to such an attack and minimize civilian casualties. Until now, other EU nations have failed to show such foresight.

#related#Britain’s strategy to prevent a domestic attack has also involved action abroad. Following the murder of 30 British citizens on a Tunisian beach last year, the U.K. has increased its covert military and intelligence activities against ISIS. Much of this work has been in concert with the U.S. and France, and it bespeaks Britain’s new understanding — after years of doubt following the Iraq War — that taking the fight to the terrorists is essential.

On Wednesday, in the face of President Obama’s continuing tango with delusion, the U.K. government called on its allies to show “greater urgency and joint resolve” in fighting ISIS. We should be under no illusions about what this diplomatic code-talk means: Whatever Mr. Obama might claim, America’s allies deplore his current strategy.

Tom Rogan is a columnist for National Review Online, a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and a former panelist on The McLaughlin Group. Email him at


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