Terror in London: It's about containment and not curtailment

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“It is doable terrorism in which normal tools of life, such as a motor vehicle or a kitchen knife, become instruments of carnage. No laws can stop individuals bent on carrying out such mayhem although restrictions, such as limiting access to firearms, can potentially reduce the death toll from acts of horrendous violence. Ultimately, then, when it comes to terrorism, it is a case of containment and not curtailment.”  


The inevitable has occurred. As UK security agencies have warned repeatedly, including through the Terrorism Threat Level forecast that a terrorist attack is “highly likely", an act of ideological violence has taken place. And not just anywhere in the UK but in the capital just outside of the “mother of parliaments.” The end result is five dead, including the attacker and a police officer, many serious injuries and widespread fear, the latter amplified through social media.

Such is the nature of terrorism in the modern age. In the modus operandi of today, specifically the use of a vehicle, London resembles, albeit thankfully on a smaller scale compared to some, the attacks in Nice (and other cities in France before that), Berlin, and even in the United States, specifically Ohio State University. That may well be the new norm for terrorism but it is important to remember that the attack occurred on the first anniversary of the Brussels attack, which involved decidedly different terrorism tactics.

This appears to have been a lone-actor terrorist attack although the problem with attaching such a label is that there is, as with terrorism, no set definition of lone-actor terrorism. Some academics insist it can only apply to an individual acting completely alone; others use the label to apply to individuals and pairs; some don’t bother to define the label at all. If any of the labels do fit then according to previous precedents, lone-actor terrorists tend to experience difficulties in life, including, often, bouts of mental illness. This type of attacker, who is almost always a man, a factor frequently ignored in the rush to focus on religious or political beliefs, will have drifted through life, with frequent involvement in petty crime and substance abuse. Then the solution from the perspective of the attacker to what amounts to a wasted life emerges through an act of extreme violence.

Some other points need to be made with regards to this attack. First, the nature of the attack speaks unarguably to the unstoppable nature of such violent acts. This is doable terrorism in which normal tools of life, such as a motor vehicle or a kitchen knife, become instruments of carnage. It is simply not feasible in a free society to stop individuals bent on carrying out such mayhem. Containment and resiliency represent the only realistic approaches to this type of violence. In that sense, other restrictions in the UK, such as the difficulty in accessing firearms and ammunition through strict gun laws, make the job of terrorists that much more difficult. Such laws can’t stop attacks, but they can help reduce the sort of death tolls witnessed in the United States with its ease of access to weapons. Geography also aids the United Kingdom. After the Paris attacks of November 2015, a police officer told me how lucky Britain was to be an island as it made it more difficult to bring in the type of weaponry used in the French capital.

Then there is the question of motivation. The label of Islamist terrorism has already been applied and, indeed, the style of attack resembles what Islamic State and al-Qaeda have encouraged their members to do. Islamic State has also claimed responsibility although that may be through inspiration and not direction.

Finally, history can be useful at times such as this in encouraging perspective and, ultimately, resiliency, especially by not overreacting to each new atrocity. Despite the perception that terrorism is at an all-time high, more people died in Western Europe from terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s than have died in the same region since 9/11. The United Kingdom, of course, has considerable experience of its own when it comes to terrorism. Indeed, the British news yesterday was dominated by the death of a former senior commander in the Irish Republican Army, Martin McGuinness. In 1972, the single worst year of The Troubles, 479 people died as a result of the violence. In comparison, just over 600 people have died in Islamist and far-right terrorist attacks in Europe over the 15 years since 9/11. Historical context then, more than ever, can offer recognition that as horrid as the attack in London has been, even worse violence has been experienced and survived in the past.