Police forensics officers dressed in PPE (personal protective equipment) suits conduct a search as they work outside Forbury Gardens park in Reading, west of London, on June 22, 2020, the scene of the June 20 stabbing spree.
Last weekend’s terror attack at a park in Reading, west of London, is a stark reminder that terrorism has not gone away despite the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 481,000 lives worldwide.
In a pandemic situation, commonsense demands that people to forget enmities that have pitted man against man, community against community and nation against nation. This is not the time to settle scores, but to abandon hate-filled ideologies and start working together to overcome the pandemic. When the ship is sinking, those who travel in it should work together to plug the hole in the bottom. Instead of cooperating with others to plug the hole, if some decide to bore more holes, they are not only irrational but also a danger to the rest of the passengers. They should be restrained and dealt with according to the law.
Though terrorists are like the irrational people in the ship, often terrorists are identified as such only when they strike. In other times, they are one among the ordinary people. This is perhaps why in 1984 the Irish Republican Army IRA, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Britain and several countries, said: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.” The statement remains immortalised in terrorism studies though it was issued 36 years ago in the aftermath of a botched attempt to kill the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in Brighton.
Terrorism cannot be eliminated, for no state’s anti-terror programme is one hundred percent fool-proof.
Last weekend’s Reading terror attack may cast a cloud over the competence of the British intelligence and the law enforcement authorities, though they have had the suspect under their radar. As reports show Khairi Sadallah, the knife-wielding Libyan suspect, who is alleged to have killed three innocent people at the park and seriously wounded three others, had undergone the government’s deradicalisation programme. It was also revealed that police had intercepted the suspect on the street just hours before he allegedly went on the rampage. He was then dropped off at his council flat. He was also wanted by the police mental health unit. The suspect’s family members say he has a mental problem.
According to the London Daily Mail, the number of people on the watch list of Britain’s internal intelligence agency, MI5, has risen by thousands in recent years. Citing the latest government document titled ‘Transparency Report: Disruptive Powers 2018/2019’, the newspaper said MI5 was investigating about 3,000 subjects of interest (SOIs) across 600 priority investigations. The document said that as soon as MI5 judged an SOI no longer posed a threat, that SOI was downgraded and placed in a ‘closed’ category called Closed Subject of Interest (CSOI). “This does not mean these SOIs will never pose a threat again, but merely that their current level of threat is not judged to be sufficient to prioritise allocating investigative resource against them,” the report said. It added that there were now more than 40,000 CSOIs, including those who had never travelled to the Britain but whose details had been passed to MI5 by foreign intelligence services.
"When terrorism such as last week’s Reading attack and the London Bridge attacks in 2017 and 2019 takes place in spite of systematic surveillance that has sometimes helped foil attacks, it indicates, on the one hand, that there are still loopholes to be plugged. On the other, it also points to hidden agendas"
When terrorism such as last week’s Reading attack and the London Bridge attacks in 2017 and 2019 takes place in spite of systematic surveillance that has sometimes helped foil attacks, it indicates, on the one hand, that there are still loopholes to be plugged. On the other, it also points to hidden agendas. This is because terrorism has its political, geo-strategic and geo-economic values.
It is widely believed that state intelligence agencies stage terror attacks or subversive attacks or facilitate terror attacks to take place in the country of their own or in a foreign country with the aim of achieving a political or economic goal as part of their secret agendas. Terrorism is part of hybrid warfare that states wage against enemy nations. In South Asia, both India and Pakistan accuse each other of cross border terrorism. One accuses the other of resorting to terrorism to undermine progress and development goals.
It is said the US let the Japanese to attack the Pearl Harbour because it needed a pretext to enter World War II. Similarly, the Gulf of Tonkin attack was ‘invented’ because the US wanted to send more troops and escalate its campaign against Vietnamese freedom fighters. Even 9/11 attacks, it is widely believed, could be a ‘let-it-happen’ event. Although any such suggestion is dismissed by the US authorities as conspiracy theories, subsequent investigations revealed that well ahead of the attacks, western intelligence agencies, including those of Britain and Germany, had warned Washington of a plan by al-Qaeda terrorists to use civilian flights as missiles to hit US targets. Even, Washington’s own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had warned the then US administration of an impending attack as early as four months before the attacks.
Then take last year’s Easter Sunday terror attacks in Sri Lanka. The Indian intelligence agencies knew it was going to happen and alerted their Sri Lankan counterparts. Why the Sri Lankan authorities sat on the warning without taking immediate action to prevent the terror attacks is still a big mystery and has become a political game of ball passing. Was it callous incompetence on the part of Sri Lanka’s then political leadership and the intelligence authorities? Or was the omission deliberate? We hope the presidential commission investigating the Easter Sunday terror attacks will have an answer in its report.
As the British report cited above indicated, there are bound to be gaps in terror-prevention operations due to lack of funds and other resources. To quash the mistermed Islamic terrorism, making every Muslim a terror suspect may sound ridiculous. Moreover, such one-community focus may give a freehand to others such as rightwing neo Nazis and racial bigots to commit their types of terrorism, as happened in Norway in 2011 and in New Zealand last year.
But agenda-free law enforcement, depoliticised vigilance, inclusive government, effective deradicalisation programmes and terror busters staying one step ahead of terrorists of all kinds may produce results.