By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Tuesday, March 28 2017.
It has emerged that one of the four people murdered during the Westminster terror attack in London last week, 75year-old Leslie Rhodes, used to be Winston Churchill’s window cleaner. It’s a quirky footnote to the tragedy, one that for some, links the attack, and those which Islamist terrorists have unleashed in other cities, to the struggle for civilization against barbarism in the middle of the last century. We have heard this before of course. The clash of civilizations has been the battle cry of many Western leaders since 9/11.
Oddly enough, Churchill had a decidedly contrarian view of terrorism. Speaking in Parliament in January 1947, less than two years after the end of World War II, Churchill said: “No country in the world is less fit for a conflict with terrorists than Great Britain. That is not because of her weakness or cowardice: It is because of her restraint and virtues, and the way of life which we have lived so long in this sheltered island.”
Ironically he was talking about Zionist terrorists in Palestine. But his words remain relevant. Because within hours of the attack, the U.K. government was quick to resurrect its perennial desire to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures to combat the threat posed by Islamist terror groups.
Rhodes, along with two other people, was killed, and 50 others injured, when British-born Muslim convert Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians with his car on Westminster Bridge before crashing into the gates of the Houses of Parliament, gaining entry to the grounds and stabbing to death an unarmed police officer. Masood, or Adrian Elms if you prefer his birth name, was quickly shot by an armed policeman – the bodyguard of the U.K.’s defense secretary who happened to be near the gate where Masood entered. The entire attack lasted just 82 seconds. It was claimed by Daesh (ISIS), who called Masood its “soldier.”
It is understandable that the death of a brave policeman has led to calls for all police officers who guard Parliament to be armed. But the government was also quick to call for increased powers to allow security services greater access to the online communications and internet browsing history of individuals. On Sunday, Amber Rudd, the U.K. home secretary and the minister responsible for law and order, threatened to introduce legislation to force tech companies to allow intelligence agencies access to encrypted messaging services after it emerged Masood had sent a WhatsApp message minutes before his deadly attack.
Rudd also warned internet companies such as Google, which runs YouTube, and other smaller sites such as WordPress and Telgram, that they must do more to stop extremist material appearing online.
You can see Rudd’s point. In the last week Daesh has flooded YouTube with violent recruitment videos in what is seen as an attempt to capitalize on the attack and encourage others to repeat it.
But I am reminded of Churchill’s words.
It’s worth pointing out that last year Rudd was forced to abandon a shameful draconian plan to force companies to publish lists of all their foreign workers in a bid to “name and shame” British companies that employed too many non-U.K. nationals.
What terrorists want is to terrorize us. What better proof that they are successful than to see democracies abandon rights that liberal societies cherish?
Would more armed police, or greater access to Masood’s social media, have prevented the London attack? The former may have saved the life of the unarmed policeman, but it would not have prevented the deaths of those mowed down by Masood when he turned his car into a lethal weapon.
Terrorism does not rely on a great amount of sophistication, or collaboration that security services can monitor. A kitchen knife and a car is all you need because, as we have seen, the biggest threat to London and other cities is lone wolf attacks. Daesh may have been quick to claim Masood’s bloody deed, but security officials do not believe he was part of an Islamist cell of the kind that carried out the Paris and Brussels atrocities.
Of the 12 people arrested in the aftermath of the attack, only two remain in custody, while a third has been released on bail. A security official said: “There is nothing dramatic about this being a global plan or directed from overseas. There is nothing to suggest he was operating as part of a cell.”
The reality for western democracies is that it was always a question of time before a lone fanatic mounted an attack on London along the lines of those that have taken place with much deadlier results in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin and Istanbul.
At the risk of sounding callous, Masood’s attack on Parliament succeeded only in generating publicity. It had no strategic significance, it didn’t bring the U.K. capital to its knees, and the death toll pales in comparison to the numbers killed in those other cities, not to mention the daily civilian carnage in Syria and Iraq.
If Masood was seriously trying to attack Parliament, the citadel of our democracy, and kill British lawmakers, he failed.
Of course, terrorism is more about creating a climate of fear, or terror, and a sense of constant insecurity. But in reality Masood failed here too. Westminster Bridge is open again. Londoners went to work the next day, on buses, trains and by foot, and went out to play again that night.
Rather than attempting to further erode civil liberties by increasing the state’s power to snoop on our private lives, there’s a plausible case for asking tougher questions about why intelligence agencies failed to pick up on Masood, who came to the attention of MI5 six years ago because of his contacts with known extremists.
It is worth remembering the Daesh executioner “Jihadi John,” Londoner Mohammed Emwazi, was able to escape to Syria in 2012 despite being on an MI5 terror watch list, which prohibited him from leaving the U.K. Despite extensive so-called intrusive surveillance of Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, both men slipped through the intelligence net and hacked to death an off-duty soldier, Lee Rigby, in broad daylight on a busy London street in 2013.
The leaders of the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, which killed 52 people, were also on the radar of the intelligence services, but again slipped through the net.
It is worth pointing out that since the 2005 tragedy the U.K. has not suffered another attack on the scale, largely because security services have successfully employed powers already at their disposal to monitor and prevent other outrages – they have foiled at least 10 attacks in the past two years.
Of course we must protect ourselves from terrorists. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.
Churchill never shied away from a fight. But he never forgot what he was fighting for.
Legend has it that during the darkest days of the war Churchill was asked to cut arts funding and to send the great works of art on display in London abroad for safe keeping. He refused with the simple response: “Then what are we fighting for?”
Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR, is a writer in the United Kingdom. A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on Tuesday, March 28 2017.