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Why the Westminster attack was a lucky escape

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It is understandable that one looks for consolation in the aftermath of tragedy and malice. It is a natural response, but not always a healthy one.

One might, for example, see it as a jolly good thing that Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attack, has so little by way of operational and strategic command over its assets that it has squandered a chillingly real opportunity to do serious damage. Had the attack been planned with any real thought, or prepared with any rigour, the results would have been far, far worse.

But this, I think, is false consolation. No man, and no state, should be comforted by the knowledge that he is secured only by the incompetence of his enemy. And already, what little information we have about the way events unfolded shows us how the consequences of a well-organised attack would have been devastating. Notwithstanding the obvious bravery of the first responders, whom we are right to praise, the facts would seem to suggest that we are lucky things were not worse, such were the holes in our security and lapses in the coordinated response procedure.

The examples are numerous. The attacker, for example, would seem to have used a rented car to carry out the first stage of the operation. Yet anyone who has ever moved house knows that it is possible to rent a van, or even a lorry, at very short notice. Had this been done, the bodies on Westminster Bridge would have been more numerous, the injuries more severe.

The attacker was armed only with a knife, and we should be thankful that guns are not as readily available in this country as they are in France or the US. Yet they are still available. There could be as many as four million guns in the UK, several hundreds of thousands of which are illegal. Even this is a conservative estimate, since criminals, by definition, are disinclined to report their own firearms. And Theresa May, whilst at the Home Office, oversaw such drastic cuts to UK border patrol forces – we have barely any boats (at one stage, just three) to patrol the entire East Coast of the UK – that it is impossible to estimate what is being smuggled into the country, or how much, or by whom. The death of Martin McGuiness reminds us that the IRA had no trouble whatever procuring huge quantities of explosives and firearms, and all serious criminal gangs enforce their territory with armed militias.

And this is just background. Consider now the events of the day: it now transpires that the attacker was halted not by an armed member of the police force but by one of the personal bodyguards of the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon. These bodyguards are only in the palace of Westminster when their charge is present, and are always in close proximity to him. Consider what might have happened had Mr. Fallon arrived early, or late, or had not been there at all. The attacker need only have looked at the schedule for parliamentary business in order to time his attack. We do not yet know where the armed police, detailed to guard the Carriage Gates, were at the time, yet Will Heaven of The Spectator asks whether, since the first sound heard at Westminster was that of the car crashing against the railings, and nobody knew anything of what was happening, they might not have disappeared to investigate.

He is right to ask this question, and it must be answered. If he is correct in his supposition, then a well-planned attack would make use of distraction, anticipating the departure of the police to investigate and circling around to the newly unguarded entrance. As it was, this would appear to have happened by accident; again, reason to be thankful, but not something which should make us feel particularly secure or happy. Sam Coates, in The Times, points out that a courier, looking to deliver a package, entered by the same gate only moments after the attacker. He was not stopped. Why was the gate not closed? Why was it left undefended?

The death of the police officer, Keith Palmer, is made more tragic by the knowledge that it was perfectly avoidable and unnecessary. The unarmed police guarding Westminster Palace are supposed to have an armed detail behind them, to deal with “serious” events. Where was this armed detail? And in what circumstance is an attack on Westminster not a serious event? Wary though one is of advocating a more heavily armed police force, one has to wonder why, once we’ve accepted the need for armed police at Westminster, we continue to station unarmed officers in front of them.

And we must consider the manner in which the evacuation was carried out. Emily Thornberry, of whom I am not overly fond, was able to conjure, on the Daily Politics, a perfectly believable scenario in which attackers, having entered by one way, might have been able to trap the hundreds of people – running without any particular sense of direction – in the corridors, or the single meeting room in which many had been told to gather, and murder them. She was wise to act by her own initiative and to encourage those around her to scatter and barricade themselves in separate rooms. I understand that members of the House of Lords have expressed concerns regarding the evacuation procedure.

And of the attacker? We heard, from the Prime Minister, that he had been investigated by Mi5 in the past, but that concerns were dismissed and the surveillance was deemed unnecessary. Is this supposed to be a defence of our security and intelligence services? The same was true of the suicide murderers of 7/7 and 9/11. Worse, in fact, in the latter case, for the perpetrators were still under surveillance at the time of the attack. (Indeed, the first words uttered by the head of the CIA in the latter case were to the effect of “Gee, I hope it was nothing to do with those guys from the flight school in Indiana.") In what world is the failure of the intelligence services a defence of the intelligence services?

All of this might be called alarmist, yet I think it right to be so. There are numerous examples, in the very recent past, which make the scenarios I postulate real to us. All it would have taken was a modicum of forethought and some semblance of a plan aimed at more than mere self-destruction for the situation to have been far worse. I could have done a better job.

Serious questions arise, and they must be answered if we are to have any confidence that our most important offices and institutions of state are properly defended and secured. We have already ceded billions of pounds, and many of our liberties, to the intelligence services; these same questions must be answered before any further obeisance is paid to them.

I hope in earnest that the forthcoming review of security, by the Cabinet Office and the Metropolitan Police, takes into account these most basic of failings. If it does, the attacker will have squandered the Islamic State’s best chance to inflict damage upon us. If it does not, this will happen again. And next time, it will be far worse.




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