Listen: Terrorism expert Professor Greg Barton talks to Katrina Roe about the London attack.
Above: Westminster Bridge, London, where part of the terror attack occurred.
A global terrorism expert says last night’s deadly attack on pedestrians in London, is a reminder that British authorities have been successfully thwarting larger attacks for years.
Professor Greg Barton of Deakin University, former head of the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, talked to Hope 103.2’s Katrina Roe this morning after news of the Westminster Bridge attack in London emerged.
He said that while the public hasn’t yet been told who is responsible for the terror attack that left five people dead and 40 injured, “it’s almost certain that London authorities do” know.
Either ISIS or an Al Qaeda-related group are likely to be responsible, Prof Barton said. The very low-tech nature of the attack, running a vehicles into crowds and attacking individuals with a knife, smacks of both groups.
“It looks like it could be ISIS, it fits their pattern of the last three years calling for lone-wolf attacks, calling for people to use their cars, use their knives to kill strangers,” he said. “But [the Al-Qaeda affiliated group] AQAP pioneered that methodology back in May 2013, with the killing of [British soldier] Lee Rigby…so that’s a possibility as well.
“Al Qaeda in the frame for the laptop flight ban, and it may be they have responded by putting a call out for lone wolf attacks to show themselves more potent, even though Islamic State is the prime candidate.
“I think we’ll hear in the next 24 hours but right now police are trying to round up anyone who has any connection. They’ll want to capture his associates and try and fully deal with this threat before they go public any more than they have to.”
One Ray of Hope Surrounding London Attack
There is one – and only one – positive factor to acknowledge, after the attack on innocent pedestrians near London’s Westminster Bridge and in the grounds of the UK Houses of Parliament.
And it’s this: extremists are resorting to weapons like cars and knives, because their more high-tech attacks are not working.
“All terror groups would like to have mass casualty attacks but if they can’t do that, they’ll go for something more low-tech,” Prof Barton explained.
“There have been many, many [large] attacks that have been thwarted, but none succeeded.”
“In the UK you had the 7th of July attacks of 2005 on the tube and bus system in London,” said Prof Barton, “and since then there have been many, many large attacks that have been thwarted, but none succeeded. There have been larger attacks planned. Plans to use liquid explosive devices on flights out of London. Quite complicated, ambitious attacks.
“We had that [knife and cleaver] attack in Woolwich [in 2013]…trying to provoke a crowd response. That seems to be the sort of thing we are dealing with here. It’s only been those lone wolf attacks that have broken through.
“But in the more ambitious attacks, the British authorities have been very effective in shutting down sophisticated plots before they could be executed.”
‘Lone-Wolf’ Attacks are Harder to Stop
Prof Barton said it’s the ‘lone wolf’ attacks by individual offendors that are very hard to prevent, and Australia is just as vulnerable as other parts of the world.
“We’ve got to plan for them,” he said. ”The attack in Nice, [on Bastille Day in 2016] with a truck was both low-tech and mass-casualty. It could just as well happen in London. There’s nothing to prevent somebody commandeering a truck or a bus and plowing into pedestrians. We’ve got to think about how we can minimize that risk.”
Passive security measures, like concrete and steel bollards in public places, are an effective example.
Is ISIS a Long Term Threat
While Prof Barton believes we shouldn’t be “paranoid” about ISIS, governments also be realistic and know that terrorist threats are here for a long time to come.
“ISIS are very much on the back foot and are being defeated on the ground in Iraq and Syria—but Al Qaeda was almost completely destroyed after the 9-11 attacks…yet right now is the strongest they’ve ever been. They haven’t gone away,” he said.
“So once ISIS is gone in Iraq and Syria in the big cities, it’s likely there’ll be either a successor or some altered form of ISIS around for decades to come.
“It would be lovely if we lived in a world where we could focus on things like health and sanitation and democracy and positive things, rather than put so many resources into counter-terrorism, but the reality is we do have these real threats.
“The trick is what do we do about it in a way that makes society better and doesn’t erode the things we are fighting to preserve.”