Three men with a white van and a stash of knives. Faced with such a simple and brutal plan for slaughter, there’s not much the world’s most sophisticated police and intelligence services can do.
Even monitoring suspected individuals can never absolutely guarantee they will be arrested before committing their grisly acts, if there is no sign that anything is imminent, experts and officials say.
“Low-tech attacks involving vehicles and knives have been on the increase recently as they are easily accessible and the most difficult for security services to stop,” said Alan Mendoza of Britain’s Henry Jackson Society.
He was speaking after Saturday night’s attack in central London which left seven dead after three knife-wielding men mowed down and stabbed revellers at the popular nightlife hub around London bridge.
“We will need further details before making a final assessment but this attack fits the pattern of recent ones in the West that have, at the very least, been inspired by groups like Islamic State,” said the HJS executive director.
Jihadist groups have for years been calling on their supporters to take up the fight where they live, using any means at their disposal, rather than travelling to Iraq or Syria to battle Western-backed forces there.
“The simpler the action is, the less operational preparation is needed, such as buying equipment, weapons and explosives, and the more complicated it is to detect them, because their behaviour is less suspicious,” Yves Trotignon, a former member of the French DGSE anti-terrorism agency told AFP.
“Counter-terrorism is prevention,” he said. “People are arrested when we have things against them, when we have reasons to believe that a crime is going to be committed. It’s possible when people are known, and watched, or when they appear suddenly on the radar because they are preparing something.
“But if this something is simply renting a van, no alarm goes off,” he said.
– ‘Learn to live with…’ –
The case of the young French jihadist Adel Kermiche illustrates the difficulty of knowing when a suspect being monitored is going to actually act: after being arrested in Turkey when he tried to get into Syria, he was released on condition he wear an electronic tag.
He still had the tag attached to his ankle when he took part in the July 2016 throat-slitting of an 85-year-old French priest in the small Normandy village of Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, along with another young jihadist he met a short time earlier online.
To physically monitor a suspect 24 hours a day requests some 20 police officers. All suspected jihadist network members and their supporters cannot therefore ever be watched all the time.
And even if they were, how would you know when someone gets into a van if they planned to drive into the centre of London to mow down pedestrian or simply to do some shopping?
“All the intelligence in the world will not prevent this kind of attack,” French senator Nathalie Goulet, co-president of a committee probing the fight against jihadist networks, told AFP.
“You don’t have to resign yourselves. But you have to face reality: to make people believe that by banning Muslims or by closing mosques we will resolve the problem is a lie. On the contrary, that would feed the argument the Islamic State
“A guy who takes his car, ploughs it into people and stabs them…. Unfortunately we have to learn to live with that and everyone must take care to be vigilant.”
Faced with this kind of threat, speed of reaction is the most important, both by police and medical services which in London on Saturday were exemplary, said Trotignon.
“The response, on the ground, is to have teams which are pre-positioned and move in as rapidly as possible to limit casualties.
“On Saturday night in London, the three men were neutralised in eight minutes, which is remarkable.”