The Westminster terror attack in the heart of London, and which has claimed lives and injured many, is another grim reminder that the roots of this malaise run deep. Westminster has seen all this before. On 17 June 1974, the IRA exploded a bomb at the Houses of Parliament.
A fierce fire broke out, causing considerable damage to the hallowed Westminster Hall, and 11 people were injured. The destruction that the IRA meted out to London over more than two decades was much more extensive than anything we have faced from so-called jihadi terrorism. Yet this experience is often forgotten as the tabloids cry panic and some officials tell us the current terrorist threat is the worst that Britain has ever confronted.
Alex Younger, the head of MI6, claimed three months ago that the scale of the threat was unprecedented. As Prime Minister David Cameron told us at that time, that global jihadism posed an existential threat to the UK. Even the usually sober Max Hill, the UK’s terrorism legislation watchdog, said recently that jihadi terrorism posed “an enormous ongoing risk … at least as great as the threat to London in the 70s when the IRA were active on the mainland”.
The whole world now knows that the London terrorist was an Islamist radical, but news outlets are downplaying it or hiding the information, especially on the internet. While ABC and CBS evening news shows Thursday admitted the attacker was Islamic, only NBCNews.com showed any prominent connection of the Big Three’s websites.
Oddly, it was “NBC Nightly News” that linked the attacker to ISIS, but never said “Islam” or “Muslim.” It’s chief global correspondent Bill Neely undermined that connection, saying of terrorist Khalid Masood, “ISIS propaganda calling him their fighter but no evidence.”
The security services have also foiled many al-Qaida and Islamic State-inspired plots. In contrast to the IRA, which could still break through on a regular basis, jihadis have managed to carry out only three deadly attacks in the UK in the 16 years since 9/11, resulting in the deaths of 57 people. While this is a significant threat, any claim that it is unprecedented does not stand up to scrutiny. Britain has had fewer terrorist attacks over the past decade than at any point in the past 50 years.
While many worry that the attack on Westminster indicates an escalation of the threat to this country, it is equally possible that it betrays the limits of jihadi capability. Security officials suspect that Isis has not developed a network in the UK with the “deadly coherence and efficiency” that it has shown in France and Belgium in recent years. The attack on Wednesday seems to have been carried out by an individual – not a coordinated group. Isis bases in Syria and Iraq are being rolled back, and the group has never had safe havens on Britain’s doorstep in the way the IRA did. That is a key reason why the IRA was able to carry out countless attacks, while the jihadis have managed only three.
The search for what is new in every terrorist attack can cloud our thinking. And the government’s assessment of the threat needs to be more clear-eyed than that of the defense secretary if it is to respond appropriately to this attack.
Whether it is a lone wolf attack in the West or suicide bombings in Afghanistan and other areas of West Asia, terrorism is now spreading its tentacles. World leaders need to speak in one voice and be united in this big fight. For India, it is vital that intelligence agencies put every shoulder to the wheel and remain alert.