More Police No Substitute for Tackling Islamist Ideology

UK Britain London ISIS Attacks
Armed Metropolitan Police officers patrol outside the Houses of Parliament on August 2, 2016 in London, England. Security measures continue to be high in London while the current UK threat level for international terrorism is severe, meaning an attack is highly likely. Carl Court/Getty Images

In the past two years, and especially over the last month, the Islamic State militant group has launched a coordinated campaign of terrorism in Europe. Among these recent attacks was the murder of 84 people in Nice by a man who ploughed a truck into Bastille Day crowds, and the brutal killing of a priest in Normandy when two young men stormed a church.

Now, the number of armed police in London, and ultimately across the U.K., is set to increase significantly. These additional forces will patrol landmarks and other areas where large numbers of people congregate. An attack in Britain is "highly likely … a case of when, not if," according to the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe. A stabbing in the British capital Wednesday is not currently being treated as an extremist act but has underlined the perceived need for an increased police presence.

As long as European countries remain free societies, public spaces and churches are soft targets that are difficult to defend. Having armed patrols will reduce the amount of time the security forces take to react in the event of a terrorist attack without excessive restrictions on liberty, that rarely work to stop terrorism.

The Nice attack in mid-July occurred less than a fortnight before France's state of emergency, in place since the November 13 2015 attacks in Paris, was to be lifted. The state of emergency was immediately extended for three months and parliament then voted to extend it by six months.

This not only creates concerns about the Rule of Law; it did not prevent the Normandy attack. The French Prime Minister said after Nice that France was "going to have to live with terrorism." While this did not play well politically, it was based in reality: these attacks are the new normal and this requires sustainable solutions, not a permanent state of official panic.

The presence of armed security forces prepared to use lethal force is an effective means of limiting the casualties a terrorist can inflict. But this is only dealing with the symptoms, rather than the cause. It is not an effective means of deterring an Islamist terrorist attack since self-destruction—"martyrdom"—is the whole point of these attacks. The spread of extremist Islamist ideology remains the core of the problem.

In Britain, there are large, deeply-rooted jihadist networks (especially in the capital) that have been part of the global movement for more than two decades. In the 1990s, as Algeria's savage war ground on, many of the jihadists—denied refuge in France—relocated to London. This led to French officials referring to " Londonistan." Among the residents of this milieu was Umar Othman, better known as Abu Qatada al-Filistini, one of the most important jihadist ideologues in the world. These old networks remain, and have revived, aiding the emigration of more than 750 foreign fighters from Britain to the ISIS and other extremist organizations in Iraq and Syria in the last five years.

The movement of foreign fighters will prove a lasting security challenge well into the future as ISIS is already engaged both in actively trying to recruit British citizens at home, and in trying to smuggle Britons who have been trained in the caliphate back into the country, to carry out attacks on their own soil. This is a dual strategy that seems very likely to pay off at some point.

Those who become terrorists are drawn from a milieu of Islamist extremism and for some jihadist organizations—al-Qaeda most obviously—the spread of their ideology in an attempt to reshape the faith entirely is more important than extremist attacks. The jihadists' ideas do not descend from the sky: they "exist within normative Islamic traditions," the British analyst Shiraz Maher writes in his new book, Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea. The jihadists' novelty is in how they interpret widely accepted religious concepts. Such views must therefore be challenged and kept at the fringes, in addition to the securitized response, if Islamist terrorism is to be defeated.

There are many ways that an ideological war might be prosecuted, doing so remains a crucial component of the debate about keeping Western countries safe from terrorism.

Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst and research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society