London attack: how Europe has overcome terror campaigns before

Amid a wave of Islamist-inspired terror attacks, it is easy to forget that Europe has been through similar torments in the past and emerged, peace restored, with its democratic institutions intact.

Darren Staples/Reuters
People cross Westminster Bridge as it is re-opened after an attack in London, Britain, March 23, 2017.

A rental car and a kitchen knife. That was all it took – aside from his willingness to die for a cause – for a suspected Islamist assailant to spread death and terror in central London yesterday.

The attack outside the Houses of Parliament, which left four people dead and dozens injured, was the latest in a string of low-tech, high-profile terrorist incidents in Europe. And, frankly, there is not much that authorities can do at street level to stop them.

Good police and intelligence work can head off such incidents and save lives, as Europe’s recent history has shown. The graver threat – that terrorist attacks undermine Western societies by spurring anti-Muslim hatred and divisions – is harder, though not impossible, to confront. Yet in the face of the contemporary wave of Islamist-inspired terror attacks, it is easy to forget that Europe has been through similar torments in the past and emerged, peace restored, with its democratic institutions intact.

Wednesday’s attack recalled similar recent incidents. Last year a man drove a heavy truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day, the July 14 national holiday, in the southern French city of Nice, killing 86 people. In December, a Tunisian failed asylum-seeker drove a truck into a Christmas market, killing 12.

But two other events this week also recall more distant terror campaigns in Europe, and serve as a reminder that they can be overcome.

In Northern Ireland, former Irish Republican Army chief Martin McGuinness was buried Thursday, his eventual role as a peacemaker earning praise that offset some of the anger sparked by his earlier role in the deaths of more than 600 civilians at the hands of the IRA.

And in Paris, the trial continued of Carlos “the Jackal,” the notorious Venezuelan international terrorist who wreaked violence around Europe in the 1970s and '80s. Ilyich Ramirez Sanchez – his real name – is already serving consecutive life sentences in France for other crimes, but is now also facing charges relating to a grenade explosion in a Paris shopping arcade in 1974 that killed two people.

In Italy, the Red Brigades spearheaded a spate of murders and kidnappings – most notably of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro – during the “years of lead” in the 1970s and '80s. In Germany, the Baader-Meinhof group was active for nearly three decades, though it tended to choose agents of the state and US servicemen as assassination targets (including a 1979 attempt on the life of former NATO chief Gen. Alexander Haig).

“Carlos” went on the rampage to try to win the release of his wife after her arrest in 1982 by French police, staging five bombings in Paris and elsewhere in the subsequent months that killed 12 people and injured hundreds.

And for 30 years the IRA waged a war against the British state that used terrorist violence against civilians, as well as more traditional guerrilla tactics aimed at the security services, until the Good Friday peace accord ended the fighting in 1998.

All these groups save the IRA, which disarmed voluntarily, were dismantled by the police, aided by informers and infiltrated spies. Careful intelligence work, out of the public eye, eventually restored peace to the European continent.

It is stepped-up security work on which European governments are now pinning their hopes. Since the multiple bomb attacks on London in July 2005, the British secret service MI5 and police have tightened their coordination in five joint units around the country. Between 10,000 and 15,000 people are working on counter-terrorism in Britain today, according to security experts.

They are not foolproof. Yesterday’s suspect was “once investigated by MI5 in relation to concerns about violent extremism," some years ago, British Prime Minister Theresa May said in a statement to Parliament.

But "he was a peripheral figure.... He was not part of the current intelligence picture,” she added.

The police are recruiting more heavily than ever before among ethnic minorities, and making particular efforts to build ties with Muslim communities.

“At the local level, mosque communities do far more than they did 10 years ago to prevent terrorism,” says Paul Rogers, a terrorism expert at the University of Bradford, in the north of England. “The police get rather more cooperation than they say.”

It is hard to say how many terrorist attacks did not happen because of police work, of course, but the government values it highly. “The police and agencies that we rely on for our security have forestalled a large number of these attacks in recent years, over a dozen last year,” British Defense Minister Michael Fallon told the BBC on Thursday.

Right-wing anti-immigrant groups were quick to show up outside Parliament after yesterday’s deadly attack, although the culprit was later said to be British-born. That sort of reaction is exactly what the so-called Islamic State – which on Thursday claimed responsibility for the incident – is aiming for, in order to sow division and hatred.

A better public understanding of what lies behind Islamic State terrorism could help defend society against such a danger, Professor Rogers believes.

“From their perspective, we’ve killed thousands of them, so they want to kill hundreds of us in revenge and sow dissension,” he says. “They are trying to take the war to the far enemy.”

Islamic State claimed in a statement published by its news agency that “the perpetrator of the attack yesterday … is an Islamic State soldier and he carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of the coalition” that is waging war on Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.

But few British citizens are more than peripherally aware that their country has been fighting such a war for the past 30 months, ever since the Royal Air Force joined in airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. The threat level in the United Kingdom has been at “severe” since 2014, indicating that a terrorist attack is “highly likely.” As Islamic State loses the territory it had conquered in Iraq and Syria it is expected to take the war ever more often to its enemies’ heart. The challenge facing British security forces is not going to get any easier.

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