Wednesday 22nd March 2017 is a date that the United Kingdom and London in particular would rather forget. On that day at 2.38 pm, as the sun struggled to penetrate the grey London clouds, Khalid Masood drove his grey Hyundai hire car across Westminster Bridge purposely ploughing into pedestrians as he went.
Leaving a trail of dismembered bodies behind him, Masood then careered into the railings outside Parliament before arming himself with two knives and launching a fatal attack on PC Keith Palmer in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster. In a whirlwind of events, Masood was then shot dead by a Minister’s police bodyguard.
Just five weeks on from that incident and terrorist activity in central London is once again making the headlines. Yesterday a man was arrested in Whitehall, a few metres away from where the Westminster attack had taken place in what Scotland Yard claim was an ongoing counter-terrorist operation. A bag containing a number of kitchen knives was recovered from the scene and the suspect, who is known to the security services, was detained for questioning at a police station in south London.
Later that evening, a woman was shot by police and more arrests were made as armed police raided homes across London and Kent. Scotland Yard later released a statement claiming that six suspects were being held in a south London police station on suspicion of the commission, preparation and instigation of terrorist acts. They stressed that this operation was unrelated to the earlier arrest in Whitehall.
Only five weeks on from the horrific attack in Westminster and as more news of planned terror attacks appear on our television screens, some may be asking the question; is London safe?
As one of the world’s most popular cities, the British security services are certainly aware of the significance of London being high on the terrorists’ lists of priority targets.
The London 7/7 attacks demonstrated the catastrophic impact of a sophisticated attack on the capital and the threat posed by ‘home grown’ radicalised terrorists. However, since that fatal day in 2007, the British security services have worked tirelessly to prevent another similar incident with thirteen terrorist attacks being foiled within the last four years.
Immediately after the Westminster attack, the competence of the emergency services was undoubtedly put to the test. Parliament was placed on immediate lockdown and the Prime Minister was whisked away by her team of bodyguards. Within six minutes of the attack, the first ambulance crew arrived at the scene. Thirteen minutes later, an air ambulance helicopter arrived to assist with the urgent evacuation of the injured.
To reassure a concerned public, more police officers were instantly deployed onto the streets to display an overt and visible presence. An investigation into the incident began and that same evening, the security services conducted raids on the homes of suspects who they believed may have played a part in the attack. By the following morning, eleven suspects had been detained.
Yesterday’s incidents highlight the continued behind the scenes work being undertaken by the police and MI5. Prime Minister, Theresa May, praised the work of Britain’s security services, saying: “I think it shows that our police and our intelligence and security services are on the alert as they always are, looking to keep us safe and secure.
“I would say that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to these people, many of whom are unseen, unheard, yet the job they do day in, day out to keep us secure is a really important one and we should thank them for it.”
Nevertheless, yesterday’s incidents also highlight that there is still a continued terror threat to Britain as there are in many other western countries. The threat level in the UK remains at severe which means that a terrorist attack is very likely. However, recent events illustrate a forced change in tactics where terrorists in the UK are using bladed weapons as opposed to firearms or explosives. Notwithstanding the potential carnage of an attack where a knife is used, this shift in modus operandi indicates a certain degree of desperation where the terrorist have been denied access to more destructive weaponry.
Interestingly, on the same day as these arrests were made, a nineteen year old man from west London pleaded guilty to plotting to blow up crowds of shoppers on London’s Oxford Street with a nail bomb. The evidence gathered in this case also came from information provided by members of the public.
Another noteworthy point is that yesterday’s arrests were made following tip-offs to the police from within the Muslim community. Often accused of self-imposed alienation and an unwilling failure to integrate into British society, this demonstrates an openness to cooperate and oppose the division that extremists wish to create.
The UK’s campaign on terror is far from over. However, yesterdays’ arrests can be regarded as another victory for the British security services where suspects are being deprived of the ability to inflict mass damage to their intended targets. Perhaps it could even be argued that last month’s attack in Westminster also resulted in some degree of failure because Khalid Masood was unsuccessful in his bid to get beyond the gates of parliament.
London has a long and proud history and the people of London are famed for their resolve in the face of adversity. A bastion of democracy, tolerance and diversity, London continues to cement its place as the world’s greatest city. It is not alone in its fight against terrorism however thanks to the relentless work being undertaken by our emergency and security services and with increased cooperation from the public, London is certainly much safer than other cities and this is one war that London is determined to win.