Terrorism: Moving Past The Blast

19 Nov 2021

DRD Analyst, Harry Barber, formerly of the Political Section at the United Nations Counter Terror Executive Directorate, looks ahead to steps which the UK government can take following the explosion at Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday

A pair of lone actor terror attacks have refocused the minds of the United Kingdom squarely on terrorism in the past month. Just over a month ago, Sir David Amess MP was stabbed to death in his constituency of Leigh-on-Sea, which was later deemed an act of terrorism by the Metropolitan Police. A second terror incident targeted Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday, as a makeshift explosive device was detonated from a taxi outside the hospital at 11:00am. Britain had just fallen silent for the customary two minutes to remember the service and sacrifice of those who have died defending the national interest. The alleged perpetrator was killed in the blast and one other person sustained injuries.

Shades of the past

The last flurry of terror attacks that the UK faced occurred in 2017 in Westminster, London Bridge, Finsbury Park, Parsons Green and at Manchester Arena with 36 lives lost and hundreds of injuries sustained across the five incidents. As a significant low point in national counterterrorism efforts, 2017 prompted an inquiry and recommendations on what needed to change by the Intelligence and Security Committee, as well as a new government counter-terrorism strategy (“CONTEST”) and associated legislation to prevent the illicit financing of terrorism such as the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act.

At this juncture, it is important to point out that we do not find ourselves in the same depths following the explosion in Liverpool and the murder of Sir David Amess as we did in 2017. However, the same vigour and determination which followed the five tragic events in 2017 should be applied proactively now to ensure a string of lone attacker events does not materialise.

In this case, it will be instructive to look back to how the security services identify SOIs (subjects of interest) as neither the alleged perpetrator in Liverpool nor Leigh-on-Sea were known to MI5. Consistent review and improvement of the Emerging and Residual Threats system, CLEMATIS and DAFFODIL, used by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre at MI5 remains vital to ensure that the threat posed by Closed or Periphery SOIs are subject to recurring reviews and that associated measures such as warrants for surveillance and travel monitoring are allocated to these SOIs, where resourcing allows for this.

It is incumbent upon UK agencies to stay in line with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations, research and best practices on counter terrorist financing (CTF) as methods evolve. In June, FATF published a primer on identifying and preventing the funding of lone actor attacks, applicable to the two attacks which took place in the past month. It is crucial that the UK works quickly with FATF and UN agencies to strengthen its suite of counter terrorist finance capabilities to deter and prevent lone actor terrorism its suite of counter terrorist finance capabilities to deter and prevent lone actor terrorism such as the events of the past month.

"We will carry on, we live in an open society, a democracy. We cannot be cowed by any individual or any motivation... to stop us from functioning". – Home Secretary, Priti Patel speaking in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 16th, 2021

The message is the method

Amidst loss of life and injuries, it can be easy to forget that terrorism is strategically designed to create fear among a community. An attack creates a hook, which allows an organisation to consolidate their harmful narrative, before media coverage and online commentary proliferates it to a broad audience.

Where we do not communicate in the face of a crisis, others will fill the vacuum with their own message. Strategic communications in response to an attack is vital to reassure the public, deal on an evidentiary basis about the nature and extent of an attack or threat to allay fears of further incidents, tackle fake news and challenge extremist narratives. The communications space is saturated, particularly on highly emotive and politicised topics such as terrorism, as the media, social media users, the authorities and the extremist group all compete for the attention of an audience.

Responding to a terror attack means taking on a responsibility to communicate to diminish the harmful narratives propagated by the lone actor or terror cell. Effective messages from key government officials, such as the Home Secretary or Prime Minister can limit the credibility of a group and reduce the likelihood of copy-cat or retaliatory attacks in the short-term, as well as potentially reducing the number of recruits in the longer term.

Ensuring the government’s message is heard above the din is imperative, meaning the Prime Minister and Home Secretary in this case must carefully consider the nature and speed of a statement. Following the explosion in Liverpool, Boris Johnson’s statement condemned the attack as ‘sickening’ before reaffirming that it would never alter our way of life in the United Kingdom. Priti Patel took the same tone by pointing out the enduring nature of our democracy as an elected representative was murdered in tragic circumstances in Leigh-On-Sea.

Such statements may seem like platitudes or clichés. However, when we look to why they are made there is a need for them in times of crisis. Communicating at the grassroots levels and building channels of communication between Whitehall to local communities must go hand in hand with well-timed political statements.