How ISIS-Inspired Terrorism Came to the U.K.

There was a time when the U.K. considered itself insulated against the Islamic State militant group known as ISIS. Britons flowed out of the country to join the violence abroad, but the carnage never came home.

Europe was not so lucky. In May 2014, a month before ISIS declared the formation of its so-called caliphate, a man opened fire at a Jewish museum in Brussels killing three people and fatally wounding a fourth. A former prisoner of ISIS, the French journalist Nicolas Hénin, identified the suspect Mehdi Nemmouche as one of his tormentors.

The brutality continued, reaching into Germany and into the streets of Paris on November 13, 2015 in attacks that killed 130 people. The Brussels attacks of March 22, 2016 killed 32 people; that in Nice on July 14, 2016 killed 86.

The U.K., however, remained inviolable. Despite more than 850 Britons traveling to join ISIS, none of the group's supporters managed to penetrate the country's defenses. Separated from Europe by sea, with rigid gun control laws and a strong security apparatus, the U.K. seemed a relative safe haven.

It didn't last. On March 22, 2017, a man rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing four. He then climbed out of the vehicle and fatally stabbed an unarmed police officer by the Houses of Parliament. Exactly two months later, a bomb exploded at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester killing 22 people. Then on June 3, three men mimicked the Westminster attacker by driving a van into people out in London Bridge before leaping out to stab people. Their tally came to eight.

Three attacks in a little over three months left Britons seeking answers to the question: "Who's to blame?" Ahead of the country's general election on June 8, many pointed the finger at the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.

Speaking to the Guardian, Robert Quick, who led the U.K.'s counterterrorism efforts from 2008 to 2009, said that government cuts to police funding had made terrorist attacks more likely. The austerity measures, under which 20,000 officer jobs were cut, began back in 2010, when May was home secretary and in charge of domestic security.

"Cuts to the general policing budget has impacted on neighborhood policing teams in many parts of the country including London," Quick said. "This has reduced the capacity of the police to work in communities building relationships and trust, to in turn generate community-based intelligence about persons of concern."

His words, which former police officers echoed, do not quite tell the full story. In recent months, attempted attacks in the U.K. have increased, with counterterrorism officials stretched thin trying to prevent them.

On March 6, Quick's successor, Mark Rowley said counterterrorism investigators had foiled 13 terrorist attacks in the past four years. Speaking on Tuesday after the London Bridge assault Rowley told reporters: "In nine weeks, we've had five plots foiled and three successful attacks [Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge]. That is completely different to anything we have seen for a long time."

Though Rowley did not specify the motivations behind the attacks, Rashad Ali, resident senior fellow at the anti-extremism think-tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue says many are likely to have been planned by ISIS sympathizers.

"ISIS arrived on the scene in 2014 and initially inspired people to go and join them in its territory," Ali says. In mid 2016, as the group began to lose chunks of territory, "it began requesting people not to move." Instead, Ali notes, ISIS actively encouraged people to carry out attacks at home, leading to the increase in attempted plots.

This might explain why, from March 2016 to March 2017, the U.K.'s anti-terrorism hotline received more than double the number of calls compared to the year before. That the first ISIS-related attack didn't occur until March 22, says Richard Barrett, a British diplomat and founder of the United Nations' Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force, is to the U.K.'s credit.

"I think our security might be better [than France and Belgium's] in some ways," says Barrett. "Certainly there's a great deal of effort going into it."

The problem, says Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the U.K.'s Royal United Services Institute, is that even the best counterterrorism officials cannot effectively guard against the new form of terrorism.

"The threshold for attacks is now very low," Pantucci says. "Groups like ISIS are saying do something, anything, and we'll accept you as our own. The target you can choose is utterly random, you can use any weapon—all these indicators are pointing in a menacing direction."

All the analysts Newsweek spoke to echoed Pantucci's comments. Islamist extremists, they said, are attempting more attacks on Britain, armed with everyday objects. It is inevitable that some will slip through the security net.

But, this analysis does not explain what happened in Manchester. Akin more to the events in Paris and Brussels, the May 22 bombing was a carefully planned attack that killed over 20 people. If security officials can be forgiven for not catching every attempted car-rammer, exculpating them for the concert bombing is harder.

Since the attack, police have arrested 19 people in connection and admitted that the assailant, Salman Abedi, was known to them and had traveled to Libya the month before. "Counterterrorism police received multiple calls about Abedi," Ali said. "He definitely would have been on the intelligence radar and yet it never led to anything."

U.K. officials have been frank about the pressures they are under. In each of the three attacks, some of the suspects were known to the police, but with counterterrorism officers managing 500 active investigations involving 3,000 potential suspects, constant surveillance of this year's assailants proved impossible. With analysts predicting that more attacks are imminent, Britons will have to hope that another Manchester can at least be prevented.