By Steven Erlanger and Alissa J. Rubin
March 23, 2017
British policemen secured the area around Parliament in London on Thursday, the day after a terrorist attack. Credit Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
The terrorist attack in London, with its combination of random deaths and the strong symbolism of Parliament shut down, comes in an important election year in critical European countries, as well as at a moment of high anxiety — about the rise of populism, migration and the integration of Muslims.
With France, Germany and possibly Italy going to the polls, analysts have long wondered whether an act of terrorism could jolt electoral dynamics and boost the broader “Europe in crisis” narrative that has elevated far-right parties across the Continent.
“This will have an echo in France and in Germany,” said Mark Leonard, the director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It becomes part of a pattern. It’s another link in the chain.”
But if it is an echo, it may be a muted one. Many European voters, anxious but increasingly inured, have essentially priced in the cost of terrorism — at least when it happens outside their own borders and when the toll is not so high. A relatively limited attack, like the one in London, was considered unlikely to shift the electoral terrain.
“This connects London to Paris, Nice, Berlin and Brussels in the context of the political space we’re in,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, rattling off the list of European cities that have been scarred in the last two years. While a terrorist attack may feed the narrative of a minority, “politically it can also pull people together at a time when we’re at a constant risk of fragmenting,” he said.
Unity is what the leaders of the European Union want to emphasize when they gather this weekend in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc. But the London attack is a reminder of yet another problem on the list: Britain’s pending exit from the bloc, regional divisions, economic disparities, unemployment, anti-Europe sentiment and terrorism.
While the effect of another large-scale attack in a voting country could still be dramatic, the ability of Islamist radicals to organize such assaults appears to have been sharply diminished. Like voters, police and counterintelligence officials are also getting used to the threat and have toughened tracking and border controls in many parts of Europe.
Even as British investigators looked for evidence that might link this lone attacker to a larger network, Europeans seemed particularly hardened to terrorist attacks like this one — unsophisticated, if almost unstoppable, the death toll relatively small and a far cry from the organized mayhem perpetrated in Paris in January and November 2015.
The London attack, then, was a reminder of ways that the West will always be vulnerable: The means used were ordinary and available everywhere; the targets were high-profile landmarks; the victims were civilians of 10 nationalities going about their daily lives. For that, there may be no remedy a ballot box can provide.
“People here know it is an international problem,” said François Heisbourg, a senior adviser with the French Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “I would be very surprised if this would have any significant effect on the campaigning in France.”
Even Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate in France, had relatively little to say about the London attack, although a marquee promise of her campaign is to “put France back in order.”
“Once again terrorism strikes at the heart of Europe, in a European capital where victims are young French,” she said in a relatively mild interview with the newspaper Le Figaro. “This cruelly reminds us that terrorism is a daily threat.”
Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, at a rally in Saint-Raphaël, France, this month. Ms. Le Pen had relatively little to say about the London attack, although a marquee promise of her campaign is to “put France back in order.” Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
But the rhetoric in and around Europe remains generally incendiary, as the problems facing it loom. Just hours before the London attack, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey issued a strange warning to the Western nations that have criticized his rule.
“If you go on behaving like that, tomorrow nowhere in the world, none of the Europeans, Westerners would be able to walk in the streets in peace, safely,” he said.
It’s hard to know what he meant, but he has repeatedly threatened to renege on a deal with Brussels under which he has restrained the flow of Middle Eastern migrants to Europe.
That migration, sometimes erroneously, sometimes not, has been linked to prominent terrorist attacks in European capitals, which have been interspersed with numerous others much more minor in smaller towns and cities, including in Germany and France.
Many attackers, like Khalid Masood, 52, who had a long criminal history but no terrorism convictions, have been home-grown, if influenced from abroad, particularly by the Islamic State. Certainly the group, which called Mr. Masood, the London attacker, one of its soldiers, has been interested in staging an attack in Britain for at least the past two years.
One of the phones used by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Islamic State’s on-the-ground coordinator of the 2015 attacks in and around Paris, contained photographs of a trip to England, according to Claude Moniquet, a Belgium-based former French intelligence official.
Among the photographs were shots of Birmingham, London and one other city. “He had photos of Canary Wharf, the Thames and nightclubs and bars,” said Mr. Moniquet, who still works closely with European intelligence agencies on various cases.
Mr. Abaaoud is believed to have met with people in England and met or traveled there with Mohammed Abrini, who is now in prison in France, after surviving the Paris and Brussels attacks.
“We know that for the last year, they have invited people to act where they are,” Mr. Moniquet said of the Islamic State.
The British have said publicly that they have disrupted 13 plots since July 2013, when a soldier, Lee Rigby, was hit by a car and then knifed to death by British Muslim converts. At least two of the disrupted plots, the British said, were meant to be larger scale.
But organizing larger attacks has apparently been difficult in Britain, which has stronger border controls than most of Europe and strict gun laws. Britain is also known for good counterterrorism work.
“I’m a bit wary of saying this is reflective of massive success by the authorities,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute. “But the fact is we have seen plotters in the U.K. have had a lot of difficulty getting access to guns and finding other means.”
An attack like the one Wednesday, with a car and a knife, is nearly impossible to prevent. While the symbolism is very strong, the death toll was low and the attack failed to provoke a lingering sense beyond the first chaotic day of security falling apart, especially when viewed from a Continent grown more jaded about terrorism.
Germans reacted surprisingly calmly to an attack in Berlin last December, when a truck crashed into a Christmas market. Credit Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Christoph Schult, an analyst with Der Spiegel in Berlin, noted that Germans reacted surprisingly calmly to the major attack on a Christmas market in Berlin last December.
“Life was largely back to normal in a day,” he said. “So an incident like London is even less likely to create any extra sense of insecurity. While some people do feel insecure about terrorism and might link it to the refugee crisis, they think the government is now doing O.K., that there are some fanatics in the world and what can you do?”
Guntram Wolff, a German who leads the Bruegel research institution in Brussels, an economic think tank, noted that “people don’t see any of the populist forces doing a better job on terrorism, and the government is responding.”
Jeremy Shapiro, a former State Department official now at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that the London attack was consistent with the recent pattern of less organized attacks and less frequent simultaneous attacks, which are harder to organize especially for the Islamic State, which is now under intensive pressure in Syria.
“It’s spectacularly easy to kill a bunch of people with a car or a truck if you don’t care who they are,” he said.
Organized attacks like those in Paris are increasingly difficult to pull off, he said, but “the capacity of one person inspired by some ideology to do damage is inescapable.”
It is “a senseless tragedy,” he said, but similar things happen in the United States, too. “And it’s sad also because our societies overreact to it and make it worse,” Mr. Shapiro said.
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to a list of European cities that have suffered terrorist attacks. One of the cities named, Nice, France, is not a capital.
Steven Erlanger reported from London and Alissa J. Rubin from Paris.