Of course, this is still small, relative to the Irish Republican Army campaigns that caused thousands of deaths across Ireland and England through the 1970s and ’80s. Even so, you have to go back a quarter century, to the IRA’s burst of bombings in 1992, to find a year with as many attacks as this one.
One reason for this upsurge in terrorist activity and arrests is the international environment. As early as June 2014, half of the casework of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, involved Britons who had traveled to Syria to fight alongside ISIS and other radical groups.
Of these, only a small minority, 500 or so, are under active investigation, and an even smaller number under active surveillance.
It would be wildly expensive, incredibly demanding and politically difficult to maintain round-the-clock surveillance on several thousand suspects. It would take at least two dozen people per suspect, which adds up to more than 72,000 personnel — almost as many as the number of soldiers in the entire British army. In fact, no modern democracy could tolerate such bloated and intrusive security forces.
However, even if this were possible, we should remember that all of this year’s attackers — in Manchester and on Westminster and London bridges — might not have been designated for surveillance anyway, as they were either in a larger, 20,000-plus category of past subjects of interest, and in some cases entirely unknown to authorities.
In addition, this year’s terror events have often involved rudimentary and unsophisticated means of attack, such as cars, vans and — in the case of Friday’s attempt — what appears to be a crude explosive device.
Britain benefits from tight gun control laws and — thanks to its status as an island — stronger control than other European states over the cross-border flow of firearms. But ISIS has exhorted its followers to lower-tech plots.
Also, in at least three cases, the attacker operated alone. These factors together make it hard for intelligence agencies to detect plotting, because there are fewer points of vulnerability, such as contact with a trained bomb-maker or large numbers of fellow plotters.
The challenge for Britain’s police officers and spies is in prioritizing between a large number of threats, accepting that some will always slip through the cracks.
It is also to address the broader, ideological environment in which radicalization takes place, and the international context that allows plotters to seek training, contacts and inspiration from abroad.
Even so, the government will be looking to do more. As MI5 chief Andrew Parker has noted, this is a “generational challenge” that will remain for years to come.