Some thoughts beyond the obvious revulsion, sympathy for the French etc.
This may or may not be a terrorist attack, and it may or may not be one man going off on one (a la Dunblane). Both happen, both are ghastly and at the point of delivery both are similar, although clearly one-man attacks are more contained by definition.
One man attacks are very much harder to predict – if the man (and I believe it always is) gives no indication of going off the rails to his friends (if he has any) then there is nothing that can be done.
Islamic Fundamentalists are exploiting this, by inciting individuals to kill westerners (and themselves). As a disruptive form of attack it is brilliant, as the transmission is one way and no logistics or coordination are required so much of the formidable western intelligence capability is bypassed. A climate of fear is generated (possibly aided by media and social media), repressive measures made more likely, and isolation of and disaffection within the Muslim community increased.
It is relatively simple to convert everyday tools like trucks, cars and aeroplanes into weapons capable of killing civilians in bulk. Obtaining effective firearms is slightly more complicated (particularly in UK) but not essential. There is little that can be done to counter it at national level – a government may ban pistols, but it can never ban HGVs
Connecting with disaffected, isolated individuals working alone is hard, if not impossible, for governments and government agencies. It might be possible via friends / family reporting concerns that so and so is depressed and increasingly isolated, but that is likely to swamp agencies with false leads rather than provide useful raw data. Moreover, as at least some reading this post will know, feeling depressed, angry, vengeful and suicidal is not a rare condition.
So societies are broadly impotent against the lone suicidal gunman/bomber/trucker.
Which means that not every bombing or shooting is a terrorist attack. We should be very careful about ascribing such events to terrorism until it is clear that they are. Terrorist attacks generate fear, outrage and a desire for government vengeance. Suicidal long gunmen/bomber generate fear, dismay and a desire for government prevention. This is a less corrosive response, although as governments are largely impotent it will in turn lead to frustration at firstly government and then, upon reflection, the human condition.
With regard to dealing with Islamic fundamentalist (or, for that matter, any other misplaced ideology) terrorism, it comes in two flavours.
Firstly, the incitement of lone actors. There are (I guess) technologies available to security services that enable them to obtain indications of both the location of sites and who might be watching. But if there are it’s a huge amount of data to sift, classify and correlate with other actions. I’m sure the sites are also chased and cyber attacked to reduce their capacity to broadcast, again a huge effort. The reality is that there will always be leakage.
Secondly, dealing with the more structured Islamic fundamentalist threat. This is probably slightly easier, although much harder than dealing with Republican terrorism in Ulster because:
(1) the Republican goal of a united Ireland had a resonance and historic reality and there was a credible political aim behind republican terrorism. This constrained their actions. By contrast, the Islamic threat is nihilistic, they just want to kill westerners; there is no political constraint and no restraint on their actions.
(2) Republican terrorism had a command structure, which was vulnerable to penetration. This took a decade to achieve, but it was and at that point being an IRA commander became very dangerous. Islam is more distributed, there is no central administration of it akin to the Christian church and so there is a much flatter command structure. If security forces are able to penetrate one sect they still won’t know what others are doing. Penetrating all sects will take more than a decade, not least as the nature of Islam is that new Imams pop up as old ones retire.
(3) Republican terrorist activity was confined to just 6 counties of UK – with the odd foray elsewhere. This made it easier to swamp with security forces (10,000 regular army, 10,000 UDR and 10,000 RUC for a population of 1.5 million i.e. one security force person per 50 head of population). Islamic target is the West, and there is lots of it. Interdicting on weapons, recruitment etc. is therefore impossible. Schengen does not help, but in UK it is unlikely that we would ever be able to afford or condone the deployment of 1.2 million members of the security forces. That is around 3% of the working population, or 15 times the size of the current Army. Similar maths applies to the rest of Europe and the US.
(4) While the Catholic church certainly did not distinguish itself in opposing republicanism, it was part of the mainstream culture of (part of) Ulster and at close to parity with the Protestant church. This meant that while almost all republican terrorists were Catholic, and at least some Catholics sympathised it was not the case that being a Catholic was immediately alienating (indeed 20% of regular army was catholic).
Yes, there were huge discrimination problems. But they were far simpler than the problem with Islam, which is that only around 5% of UK population are Muslim. They are an easily identified minority to discriminate against, which means that they are less likely to foster close relations with law enforcement. The UK is probably well ahead of France in this respect, but we need to accept that it is a more challenging environment than Ulster.
(5) International. Republicans enjoyed a porous border with Eire and some financial support from US. However, we got increasingly adept at interdicting their arms supplies, not least due to the geography (weapons had to get to Ulster). Parts of the Saudi state (and others) support parts of the Islamic threat. We can whinge (as we did to the US) but if we want/need their oil we can’t go toppling their regimes (which ends badly). With US, until the Reagan years we had a similar problem, and by the time Reagan got to power we had penetrated the IRA so had evidence.
So what (as we used to ask cadets at Sandhurst)?
- I hate to say it, but we need to get used to this.
- Beating terrorism is simple – don’t be afraid. (I didn’t say it was easy). After 7/7 the City went back to work. On the next scare, rather than evacuating we sat in stairwells on laptops and kept working. The message to Islamic terrorism has to be simple – “You are not winning and you will never win.” This can then morph into “You have no political aim, let alone an achievable one. You are just killing” and that message must be forced upon every Muslim and Imam. Yes, 99% (or whatever) of Muslims do not countenance what is being done. Great, now do something about it. Its murder, not jihad and that is hypocritical.
- Resource security forces sensibly, but manage expectations. They are virtually powerless against the individual, and there will be leakage. Encourage the media to avoid blame culture when it goes wrong.
- Resist the allure of inclusive multiculturalism and don’t sympathise with (e.g.) calls for integration of Sharia Law. This may require Mrs May to instruct her successor at Home Office to execute a smart about turn. That’s what minions are for…
- Jump hard on discrimination against Muslims, or anyone else. No need for new laws, just use them.
- If and when security forces need new powers, grant them. But make sure that they are limited to security force personnel working in pursuit of terrorism – don’t let local government abuse them as has happened before.
- This is a rerun of the battles of the enlightenment. Get a serious grip on education, particularly English and science.
Or, more succinctly, keep calm and carry on.