Terror at Westminster

An injured woman is assisted after the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge
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The attack in post-Brexit UK, many fear, will have far-reaching consequences, especially for refugees

IN SEPTEMBER 2016, London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who was in New York for a meeting, told a newspaper that the threat of terror attacks are “part and parcel of living in a big city”. He was reacting to a bomb explosion that had ripped through Manhattan earlier, injuring 29 people. Khan said he had a sleepless night after the bombing. On March 22nd, a man drove a grey Hyundai i40 car along a pavement in Khan’s own city, killing two people. He then drove to the British parliament at Westminister where he ran into a policeman whom he stabbed before he was shot by other policemen.

The IS has now claimed responsibility for the attack, terming the man a ‘soldier of the caliphate’.

Since 9/11, investigative agencies all over the world have grappled with how to prevent such attacks on their soil. While they have been successful in busting many terrorist networks and their sleeper cells, many terror attacks have taken place and there is a grudging acceptance, like Khan’s, that these are now a part and parcel of our lives. It is next to impossible to prevent a lone man from acquiring a car and a knife and then killing people. The sheer randomness of it is enough to drive people insane.

But what is the genesis of such attacks?

In 2014, Taha Sobhi Falaha, better known to the world as Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, chief spokesperson and senior leader of the Islamic State (IS), issued a call to his supporters in the West. He asked them to avoid coming to the Middle East to fight and instead strike “unbelievers” near their homes, especially soldiers or police officers. “If you are not able to find an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” he urged them.

The United States finally got him in an airstrike in Syria last August. But by then, his call had spread and his followers had begun to act on it. A month before his death, a man drove a stolen truck through a parade in France, killing 86 people. In November, a young man knifed a group of students in Ohio, US, injuring 13. A month later, a refugee drove a truck into a market in Berlin, Germany, killing 12 people.

There has been a lot of speculation and many debates over what prompts such men—often called ‘lone wolves’—to act in such murderous ways. Every time a terrorist attack happens, the people of the free world wonder how men who have grown up among them and not in some distant Muslim country could become so radicalised. But as the journalist Jason Burke, who has extensively covered Islamic extremism, wrote in one of his pieces in The Guardian, calling such men lone wolves and then asking how they were radicalised is ‘deeply misleading’. He writes that ‘of the hundreds of Islamic militants who have been involved in attacks in Europe over recent years, only a tiny minority have acted alone. Most have been involved in broader networks of activism, some violent, some less so.’

A day after the March 22nd incident, UK Prime Minister Theresa May said the assailant was British-born and that his identity too was known to the police as someone they had concerns about on “violent extremism”. She said what had happened on the streets of Westminster “sickened us all”.

The far-right was quick to react. Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League, called it “a war” that “these people” were waging on the UK. He and others are questioning the UK Home Office’s recent decision to give Syrian arrivals ‘refugee’ status that will enable them to procure overseas travel documents.

While eight people have been arrested in connection with the attack, things are likely to become worse in the UK and elsewhere in Europe. . As Stephen Hale of Refugees Action puts it, Britain’s refugee policy is shaped in London, not Brussels. News of the Westminister attack has been splashed across the media throughout Europe. Under the cloud of Brexit, the Right is rising rapidly in the continent, and the latest attack in London will only add ballast to their rhetoric against outsiders.