Sydney-Style Attack on UK Was 'Days Away', Says Police Chief

Bernard Hogan-Howe
The newly appointed commssioner of the Metropolitan Police Bernard Hogan-Howe poses for photographers outside New Scotland Yard in central London September 12, 2011. Andrew Winning/Reuters

British prime minister David Cameron and the head of the Metropolitan Police Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe have warned that a UK lone-wolf terrorist attack, similar to the one that took place in Sydney this week, is highly likely.

Speaking to LCB radio on Wednesday, Hogan-Howe said Britain had been just "days away" from a terrorist attack comparable to the Sydney siege, in which extremists had been "very close" to "hurting someone badly or killing them", before it was foiled by security services.

Asked by presenter Nick Ferrari whether there were extremists in the UK like Man Haron Monis, the fanatic behind the Sydney attack in which 17 people were held hostage and two killed at a Lindt cafe on Monday, the police commissioner replied: "There will be, there is no doubt. Look at what happened to Lee Rigby."

He said that over the past four months, the Metropolitan police have prevented five terror plots, arresting 35 people.

"There are people out there who are dangerous and that is why we keep arresting them because we need to stop them hurting people," he said.

"It's clear [that in Sydney] you've got a radicalised individual who had a weapon and took many people hostage. That is a terrifying prospect and very difficult to guard against. The best defence we all have is good intelligence," he continued.

Speaking to MP's in the House of Commons on Tuesday, David Cameron also warned that Britain could be "hit at any moment" by attack similar to the one in Sydney.

The threat faced by the UK included "self-starting, sometimes quite random attacks that could happen at any moment", the prime minister said.

"We have seen, over the last few months, there have been a series of plots that have been detected and prevented, that would have seen police officers or other authority figures murdered in cold blood, as Lee Rigby was murdered in cold blood."

"It's thanks to the brilliance of our policing and security services that these things have been prevented," he added.

"But we can't count on them to prevent it every time, because it's one thing understanding the terror networks coming out of Pakistan or Afghanistan or Iraq and Syria, and trying to monitor what they are doing and who is going and who is returning."

"That's one thing, but people who are self-radicalised, often on the internet, who then suddenly do appalling things, that is much more difficult to prevent," he said.

The prime minister admitted that the government needed to boost its efforts to wipe out the dangerous ideology of fanatics who lead the so-called 'lone-wolf' attacks.

"We have got to drive them out of our communities," Cameron said.

A 'lone-wolf' attack, such as that carried out by Monis in Sydney, refers to an operation which requires little planning, often unsophisticated technology and usually occurs without the support of a wider network.

According to Peter Neumann, director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, a lone-wolf attack is much more likely than a larger-scale attack like those seen over the past decade, such as the 7/7 bombings in London.

"It's a trade off in the sense that the more complex attacks kill more people and are more sophisticated, but the lone-wolf attacks are easier to pull off and more difficult to prevent, much may be less damaging to human life," he says.

According to Neumann, ISIS - whose ideology he believes to be behind most of the foiled terrorist attempts over the past five months - does not yet have the structure in the West to pull off a complex attack.

"Over the past two months they have established a signature of the kind of attack they want to see, one that they have shown to the entire world and is just as intimidating," he says, referring to the series of high-profile beheadings of Western hostages by the Islamic fundamentalist group, who have conquered vast areas of Iraq and Syria in the last year.

"If there was a beheading on Oxford Street [in central London], it would have a terrible effect. Not only would it terrify people, but it would hurt business, and would polarise communities."

"ISIS have actively encouraged their supporters around the world to kill disbelievers however they can, whether they cut their heads off or throw them off a roof. They don't want their followers to bother with complex attacks because they are harder to execute. These fan-boys of ISIS are excited about the beheadings that they see- they are not interested in blowing up a bus as they don't know how to do it."

"However, anyone can pick up a knife and behead someone if they really want to," he added.

According to Neumann, a lone-wolf attack in the near-future is very likely. "All the factors are pointing in that direction - there is the precedent as well as the ISIS supporters around the world, particularly on the internet, who are basically saying that that this style of attack is a good way of asymmetrically responding to West's attacks, and intimidating the public. They are not wrong".

Asked what he thought the driving force behind the attacks was, he said: "It is very obvious that whenever terrorism happens, it is the nexus between grievance and ideology. Most people grieve at some point, but those who become terrorists have picked up an ideology that have taken their grievance in a particular direction. And it is precisely the link between the two that transforms someone from being unhappy, to someone who beheads someone on the street."

Johnathon Russell of the counter-extremism Quilliam foundation says that the term 'lone-wolf' is often misleading, as people tend to become radicalised with some form of contact - in study circles or mosques, where radical preachers may have "spun their narratives". He prefers to call them "self-starters".

"This type of threat is much more of an issue than a 9/11-style threat," he says.

According to Russell, the best way to deal with such threats is by taking an approach that enlists civil society, rather than a legal or military approach. "If we can educate the masses - not just the Muslim communities but everyone – on how to counter extremism, then we can make them more resilient against such attacks."

"People need to distinguish between Islam and Islamism – religion and politics – and also to stop believing the propaganda of the extremists and apologising for the few things that we as a liberal democratic nation get wrong. Whilst I wouldn't defend these things, they are all grievances that are being exploited."