In the past three months, a string of terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom have forced the country to contend with a new reality: deadly terrorism is occurring on a scale not seen since the 2005 London bombings, bringing along with it a host of other dynamics and concerns. As attackers resort to increasingly simple methods, including crude explosives and vehicles targeting pedestrians, hate crimes against Muslims have spiked.
SFS faculty weigh in on the significance and consequences for the United Kingdom because of these attacks, including the March 22 attack on Westminster Bridge in London, the May 23 attack outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, and the June 3 London Bridge/Borough Market attack.
A Changing Atmosphere
Professor Daniel Byman wrote on the evolving nature of terrorist groups, juxtaposing the causes, methods, and responses to terrorism today to those of 30 years ago.
“Terrorist groups themselves have changed, altering the nature of the threat they pose. Some of these dangers concern the groups and their ideology, while others emanate from how they recruit, act, and thrive. Similarly, the U.S. and European response to terrorism has evolved, both for better and for worse.”
Byman also noticed the challenge posed by small-scale attacks, which are difficult to prevent in an op-ed for LawFare.
“Since 9/11, keeping the U.S. homeland safe from mass casualty terrorism is an understandable priority by which every president should be judged. But the post-9/11 standard is not simply to avoid additional mass casualty attacks but rather to stop all attacks on Americans everywhere—an impossibly high bar,” he said. “Americans are in no mood to accept that small attacks are difficult to prevent and that a low level of terrorism at home is a sign of success, not failure.”
Professor Bruce Hoffman considered the issue of preventing these attacks from a civil liberties perspective, highlighting the urgency of stopping low-profile or lone-wolf attackers before intrusive investigative techniques become normalized in an op-ed for the National Interest.
“Decisively addressing these threats and ending this war is now imperative, if we are to preserve the core liberal democratic values we cherish and the fundamental civil rights and liberties inherent to our societies. It will necessitate kinetic as well as non-kinetic means, enhanced multinational intelligence cooperation and coordination, strengthened community engagement and better measures at countering recruitment.”
Hoffman made similar comments to The New Yorker after the London Bridge attack, explaining the mounting difficulties facing anti-terrorism efforts.
Another new phenomenon is the Islamic State’s aggressive use of Ramadan as a platform for terror, an issue addressed by Hoffman in the Los Angeles Times.
“By hijacking this annual holiday, they’ve inspired fear and anxiety years in a row,” he said. “That’s how it generates their power. Terrorism is as much about violence as it is about the perceived threat of continued violence.”
Hoffman also placed the use of Ramadan as a vessel for terror within the context of the Islamic State’s larger strategy for global terrorism in an interview with the Cipher Brief.
“For me, one of the biggest challenges is that however disconnected these attacks may be, there is certainly a strategy apparent; one of fomenting and facilitating these types of attacks,” he said. “And the threat that links them all together that does worry me profoundly is they are all an assault on Western liberal democratic values.”
Trump and Government Responses to Terrorism
Byman shared similar concerns on the normalization of radical anti-terrorist policy in comments for a Vox piece on government responses to terrorism.
“You’ve already seen some of his supporters say, ‘Look at Manchester; how could you not be for the Muslim ban,” he said.
Hoffman urged measured responses to the Islamic State’s “strategy of provocation” in the New York Times.
“Any reaction that’s immediate and emotional rather than sober and considered plays into the terrorists’ hands,” he said.
Hoffman also conducted an interview with Vox on possible Trump administration responses to a Manchester or London-style attack in the United States, arguing that the United States was “less safe” than it would be under another president due to Trump’s erratic articulation of opinions and alienation of the U.S. Muslim community.
“The President’s response to the London attack is yet another indication of how he shoots from the hip in a crisis and politicizes tragedies rather than taking the high road. This angers allies, worsens domestic tensions, and otherwise makes a bad situation worse.”
“Terrorism has existed for two millennia and has been perpetrated by every major religious movement, some minor ones, many cults, by secular groups as well,” he said to NPR. “It’s a tool that’s unfortunately and tragically universally embraced. The reality today is that far more Muslims have been killed by these terrorist groups than Westerners.”