London keeps calm

posted in: Viewpoints | 0

The violent attack which occurred outside British Parliament and on Westminster Bridge on Wednesday, 22 March 2017, has thus far led to the deaths of six individuals and the further injury of more than 40 others. 24 hours after the death of perpetrator, Khalid Masood, was announced, the so-called Islamic State issued a propaganda statement claiming him as a soldier acting on “response to calls to target citizens of coalition countries” (The Independent). Aspersions have already been cast on this claim, but the fact remains that this is the first mass-casualty terror plot to have occurred on the UK mainland since the 2005 7/7 bombings.

The immediate reaction to the attack was characterised by shock, outrage, and the international expression of sympathy and condemnation that has now become more commonplace in the West. More striking was the rapid return to normalcy and the apparent evaporation of political panic overnight. Parliament resumed sessions on 23 March, following a minute’s silence for the victims of the previous day. Financial markets, which had taken significant hits in the wake of the 2015 Paris and 2016 Brussels attacks, “shrugged” off the impact of the day. Despite a few international news pundits claiming that the city had shut down in the wake of the attack, the more marked response was the indignant backlash to such assertions by native Londoners.

To a degree, part of this show of resilience can be attributed to the relatively small scale of the attack. Compared with acts of terror carried out elsewhere in Europe since 2014, the Westminster attack was less deadly, less destructive and less disruptive. It was the work of a single individual acting alone, who was killed at the scene and did not involve the use of explosives or firearms. Khalid Masood’s methods were signatures of the current terror trend for crude vehicle and knife attacks orchestrated by radicalised lone wolf actors deployed in the West, but his target was different than in previous incidents. Rather than striking against a “soft” civilian target (such as a nightclub, market, or festival crowd), his main goal seems to have been political disruption. The choice of the highly securitised centre of British political power and, arguably, history’s most iconic terrorist target, meant that the chances of a successful, or hard-hitting blow to the national psyche were scarce, even if London had not been prepared to handle a terror attack. Overall, the attack at Westminster lasted only 82 seconds from the moment the car mounted the pavement on Westminster Bridge until Masood was shot.

Since 2014, the UK terror levels have been set at ‘critical’, meaning that an attack is highly likely. The reception to the amplified threat coincided with an increase in the number of armed police officers (there are now 2,800 in the Met) and the introduction of the new counterterrorist analytics branch JTAC, and directorate OSCT, since 2005. In the years following 7/7, the London Metropolitan Police has carried out several counter terrorism exercises, the most recent staged on the Thames on March 19, 2017, four days before the attack took place.

The extremely limited impact of the reintroduction of mass-casualty terrorist action to the UK Mainland may well be the result of this long-term resilience planning and the government stipend provided to counterterrorism and security resources in Britain. There is something, too, to the fact that London has more 20th-century experience with terrorism than most other Western capitals. The roots of this resilience and contingency by emergency services are deeply embedded in London’s modern history. A week following the attack, few economic anxieties are spared for the fiscal impact of the Westminster attack when the triggering of Article 50 offers more uncertainty over the state of London’s future.

We will continue to monitor any potential impact of the re-emergence UK terrorism on the tourism and hospitality markets as the spring and summer months develop.

Tamara Evan

Tamara Evan

Tamara Evan is the head of Geopolitical Research at the Centre for Risk Studies, Cambridge Judge Business School. She supports the Centre’s work on geopolitical and technological risks and heads research into the emerging threat of cyber terrorism to infrastructure.

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