At 2:40 p.m. London time, a terrorist drove a vehicle into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge. Then, reaching the north side of the bridge over the River Thames, he smashed into the gates of the British Parliament. Leaving his vehicle, he fought with police officers just inside a Parliamentary checkpoint. He was then shot and killed by armed police. Regrettably, before he died, the terrorist murdered one police officer and two other individuals and injured at least 20 others.
By utilizing a motor vehicle and knife and by targeting police (though this may have been pursuant to a desire to enter the Houses of Parliament), this assault follows Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS) methodology. And coincidentally or not, today is also the first anniversary of the Daesh attacks in Brussels. It is so far unclear whether the attack is linked to or inspired by Daesh — but I would bet very strongly that it is.
Regardless, British officials must now answer three pressing questions.
First, was the suspect operating alone or as part of a larger cell? Here, we must recognize that Britain’s terrorism environment is diverse. There are the loser-lone-wolfs in the vein of Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, but also skilled, multi-member cells. Daesh has previously planned highly compartmented, multi-stage attack plots in Europe. And in January 2016, it specifically threatened London’s Tower Bridge (not Westminster Bridge) and the then-prime minister, David Cameron. Authorities must quickly identify the suspect’s connections and learn whether (as with Daesh plots in France) he was advised by operatives abroad.
This leads us to the second question: Was the suspect known to the authorities? I suspect he was. British counterterrorism authorities retain a highly advanced database of jihadists and their sympathizers. This is helped by the fact that U.K. spy agencies have great latitude to identify and monitor terrorist suspects. The challenge, however, is that the number of terrorist suspects in Britain reaches into the thousands. Correspondingly, counterterrorism investigators must prioritize resources on those individuals they believe to pose the most significant threat. They cannot monitor everyone all the time. That said, if the suspect does turn out to be a known threat, political pressure will grow for a reintroduction of the now-defunct “control orders,” which imposed electronic tagging on terrorist suspects in lieu of prosecution.
Third, the U.K. must consider how well it responded today. While the Paris and Brussels attacks led the British to improve their response capacity to so-called roaming attacks, more must be done. Until now, the specific focus has been on investment in improved SWAT counterterrorism capabilities. But those efforts have been prioritized for London. Two immediate issues for the British are that the physical security of Parliament and the personal security of the British prime minister and the Queen are inadequate.
Was the suspect known to the authorities? I suspect he was.
But further hardening of the capital’s defenses won’t solve the problem of other British localities lacking London’s counterterrorism resources. Specifically, they do not have enough armed police officers (most British police do not carry firearms). Any major attack outside London would thus likely require a response from two military special-forces units that are kept on permanent standby. But aside from small forward-deployed elements, both of those units are based in western and southern England, leaving much of the United Kingdom vulnerable.
All this said, British officials will tonight privately breathe a sigh of relief. An attack of this kind has been expected for years. But it was expected to be far worse. Fortunately, London’s first responders reacted with speed and exemplary courage. None more so than the officer who gave his life to defend his nation’s Parliament.