Attack forces urgent review of country's security measures

PHOTO: AFP

British government and intelligence officials are urgently reviewing the country's security procedures in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in over a decade.

Four people died and about 40 others were injured in the terrorist attack in London on Wednesday.

The assailant, using his car as a weapon, first ploughed into pedestrians on the pavement along Westminster Bridge.

After smashing his vehicle into the perimeter railings outside the Palace of Westminster, he ran into the grounds of Parliament, where he stabbed to death a police officer before being gunned down himself.

The deadly rampage, reminiscent of similar attacks in other parts of Europe last year, flags ominous developments in international terrorist trends.

Instead of logistically complex assaults involving bombs and multiple participants, a single assailant armed with no more than a knife and a car was able to strike with deadly effect.

Read Also: British parliament attack: What we know

To be sure, some of the initial lessons to be drawn from Wednesday's incident are encouraging for the authorities.

While the assailant did manage to get past the first cordon of policemen at the entrance to the parliamentary buildings, he was shot well before he had any chance of getting near the MPs and members of the House of Lords who worked inside, precisely as security procedures envisaged.

The first ambulances were at the scene to tend to the victims within three minutes after the attack began, well inside the eight-minute planned target response time for such emergencies.

And a lot of other details not evident to the untrained eye also worked as intended.

Security forces were present in sufficient numbers not only to rebuff and kill the perpetrator, but also to meet the eventuality - considered real at the time of the attacks - that he might have had associates elsewhere, ready to launch attacks on other targets in London at the same time.

The presence of police helicopters and the locking down of much of the centre of London may have seemed excessive, but were an essential part of the response strategy.

4 killed, 40 injured in Britain Westminster Bridge attack

  • Aysha Frade, a mother who was run down and killed, was on her way to pick up her children.
  • Policeman Keith Palmer was killed during the terror incident at the Houses of Parliament. AFP PHOTO / Metropolitan Police Service
  • Kurt Cochran from Utah in the United States has been named as the third victim.
  • 4 people were killed and 40 injured after being run over and stabbed in a lightning attack at the gates of British democracy on Wednesday attributed by police to "Islamist-related terrorism".
  • The attack unfolded across Westminster Bridge in the shadow of Big Ben, a towering landmark that draws tourists by the millions and stands over Britain's Houses of Parliament - the very image of London.
  • The attacker's car struck pedestrians on the bridge before crashing into the railings surrounding the heavily-guarded Houses of Parliament, sowing first shock then panic in the seat of British power.
  • The assailant then ran through the gates brandishing a knife and stabbed a 48-year-old policeman to death before being shot dead by another officer.
  • Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as "sick and depraved" and said that "the terrorist chose to strike at the heart of our capital city" in an attack on Britain's democratic values.
  • Standing outside her Downing Street residence after an emergency cabinet meeting, May voiced defiance and said parliament would meet as normal on Thursday, while Britain's alert level would be kept unchanged.
  • "We will all move forward together, never giving in to terror and never allowing the voices of hate and evil to drive us apart," said May, who was dressed in black.
  • Britain's top counter-terrorism officer Mark Rowley said the four victims included a policeman guarding parliament and three members of the public.
  • "Islamist-related terrorism is our assumption," Rowley told journalists, adding investigators believe they know the identity of the assailant who was shot dead by police.
  • The attack came a year to the day after Islamic State jihadists killed 32 people in twin bomb attacks in Brussels and after a series of deadly assaults in Europe that had hitherto spared Britain.
  • Parliament was locked down for several hours and hundreds of lawmakers and visitors were later evacuated to nearby Westminster Abbey and the headquarters of London's Metropolitan Police.
  • An air ambulance flew in and police cordoned off a large area, while tourists on the London Eye, a popular visitor attraction, were stuck up to 135 metres in the air for more than an hour during the incident.
  • "I saw three bodies lying on the ground and a whole lot of police. It was pretty terrifying," said Jack Hutchinson, 16, from the United States, who was stranded on the observation wheel with his parents.
  • Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood, whose brother Jonathan was killed in the 2002 Bali bombing, was pictured with his face smeared with blood helping to give first aid to the fatally wounded police officer.
  • US President Donald Trump and French President Francois Hollande both spoke to May and Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany stood with Britons "against all forms of terrorism".
  • Social media users shared an altered image of a London Underground sign reading "We Are Not Afraid" and the hashtag #PrayforLondon trended on Twitter.
  • May was in parliament at the time of the attack and was seen being ushered away in a silver car as what sounded like gunfire rang out, British media reported.
  • Three French pupils on a school trip were among those hurt and a seriously injured woman was rescued from the River Thames following the incident.
  • Five South Korean tourists were wounded, the Yonhap news agency reported, while the Romanian foreign ministry said two Romanians were also injured.
  • A doctor at nearby St Thomas' Hospital said they were treating people with "catastrophic" injuries.
  • British lawmaker Mary Creagh told AFP there was "a real sense of panic" as the attack unfolded.
  • Polish former foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski was in a taxi on the bridge and said a car "mowed down at least five people... one of them bleeding profusely".
  • Three shots were heard on video footage.

Furthermore, the fact that the assailant used a car and a knife to mow down and stab people serves as a reminder that Britain's strict gun laws seem efficient enough to drive terrorists towards "weaponising" everyday tools, rather than using more deadly firearms.

Still, the attack in London confirms a disturbing shift in politically motivated violence, first seen in France and then in Germany, whereby terrorists aim to kill as many people as possible by running them over with vehicles.

Security services in Britain and many other countries are now urgently reviewing their preventive measures in order to limit the destructive potential of such attacks; expect many more restrictions on all vehicles in areas where crowds gather, as well as the placing of sturdy obstacles on pavements at key spots where large numbers of people are expected to pass.

Defences around Whitehall, an area of 1km in radius in central London where Parliament and most key government departments are to be found, have already been strengthened considerably during the past two decades.

There is a two-layer steel and concrete physical barrier restricting the road adjacent to the Parliament building.

Access to Downing Street, the British Prime Minister's official residence, is also heavily restricted and a variety of other barriers - mostly made of steel but disguised as stone structures designed to look suitably ancient - protect pedestrians across the adjacent pavements.

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Nevertheless, the pavements on the bridge over the Thames river which leads to the iconic Big Ben tower has almost no protective devices, and the gate through which MPs walk or drive their cars into Parliament remains strangely vulnerable.

Until now, it was protected by two makeshift police barriers which can be set aside by a single person, and a few "bobbies" greeting passers-by with the familiar "Good morning".

All very British but all will have to change.

The gates will now have to be secured with permanent structures, and traffic in the square facing Big Ben may have to be curbed.

Security services will also have to take another look at arrangements protecting the Parliament building from the river; this is a preventive work which never ends.

The investigation into the attack continues.

Read Also: S Korean tourists among injured in Westminster Bridge attack which killed 4

British Prime Minister Theresa May's decision to chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee in the wake of the attack and arrests made in police raids across Britain yesterday raise further questions about how intelligence services should monitor and identify radicalised individuals.

But the response of ordinary Londoners also confirmed the city's resilience.

"The flower that blooms in adversity is the rarest and most beautiful of them all," read a note scribbled by workers at one station on London's underground system which had to close due to the terrorist attacks.

Passers-by stopped, read the notice and smiled.

jonathan.eyal@gmail.com


This article was first published on March 24, 2017.
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