The abominable attacks in the UK, France and Germany are clearly unacceptable; but the responses of both security services and political leaders are completely inadequate to these types of threat.
Today we hear that one of the London Bridge attackers was well known to the police and media. But “there was insufficient evidence he was part of a plot, so was not actively investigated”. Also, one of the same group of attackers had been hiding in plain sight in Dublin, travelling freely between the UK and the Republic, presumably associating with other similarly radicalised individuals. Perpetrators of the Manchester attack had evidently been identified as radicals by members of the public who informed the police, who evidently didn’t or were unable to respond. And the UK police at last admit they have insufficient resources.
We must sympathize with the police and security services; they have an impossible job; the terrorists can live freely in society and increasingly use everyday artifacts as weapons such as rental vans and trucks and knives. Conventional policing where suspects are tracked involving huge resources is never going to have enough resources.
A conventional response, which was used in times past with the IRA, would be to inter individuals that were clear threats where there was no hard evidence. This was always highly controversial and goes against all our democratic norms. And of course, we could perhaps inter individuals returning from Syria or Iraq who were known to have been involved in those conflicts. But for how long? And what about those that didn’t travel but provided resources, funding and other forms of help?
A modern approach would be to track patterns of behaviour. We are all aware that everything we do is tracked, including telephone calls, emails, social media posts and messages as well as purchases, travel arrangements, border crossings etc. as well as particularly in the UK, CCTV surveillance. Terrorists will have particular behavioural patterns – associations with others who are also suspected, travel to particular locations, use specific web sites, attend specific churches etc. This technology is available and mature; in active use by commercial organizations and tech companies involving sophisticated use of big data and artificial intelligence. But we must assume that the police and security services are not using these systems, at least in any effective manner. Perhaps they are constrained by law?
Strangely I don’t hear or see comment on this aspect of how we should respond. Why? Are we too precious about our democracy? The fact is our democracy is already being undermined by political operators and indeed politicians that have swung and radicalized opinion because of threats to society. It’s time we grasped this challenge and accepted some loss of privacy in order to protect society. It’s way past the time for political leaders to use vague statements of intent; or to focus resourcing as the only solution. We should be using the power of the very latest technology and requiring the tech companies get deeply involved in addressing all the issues that have been talked about for too long and not acted upon. And implement across Europe.
It’s evident the police and security services are simply plodding. They need to be brought into the 21st Century.