The UK narrowly averted a series of potentially devastating attacks over the weekend in an apparently coordinated plan to detonate vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) in multiple locations.
The attackers used a combination of remote-detonation and suicide tactics to deploy their explosives, but in all three cases were unsuccessful. Two cars discovered in central London packed with gas canisters, petrol and nails failed to detonate, while two would-be suicide attackers were unable force their Jeep through the entrance of Glasgow airport. Instead of exploding both themselves and its cargo, they set themselves and the vehicle alight, and were ultimately restrained and arrested at the scene.
The attacks appear to be deliberately timed to coincide with the UK’s new Prime Minister Gordon Brown taking office. The strategy was reminiscent of that used to advantage in Madrid in 2004, where bombings that claimed almost 200 lives arguably turned the electorate against the incumbent government, a result that led shortly after to the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Similarly, the 7 July, 2005 attacks on London came on the heels of Britain’s successful bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.
Since terrorism in most cases has discernible political motivations and goals, it comes as no surprise that attacks should be timed in this manner. The efficacy of the police and security services has kept the frequency of actual attacks low. Without the capability to mount a sustained and frequent campaign, terrorists will be ever more conscious of the need to time attacks for maximum political effect.
The failure of the attacks in this instance means that the Government is unlikely to feel significant pressure to consequently change or accelerate policy plans linked to Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor will there be an increase in pressure, born of fear, from the public to do so.
The Government should however be looking carefully at how it would manage its response in the event of a similar, successful attack. It is clear that policy should be driven broadly by the democratic will and national interest. Avoiding short-term responses driven by fear and political pressure will be key in the event of a successful attack – the Government should be prepared for this.
Head of Terrorism and International Homeland Security
For more information on this strand of research, please contact Garryh@rusi.org.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI