LONDON — The violent Islamist terrorist attacks launched against Britain — Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge — mean national security is firmly on the political, security and media agenda, and just about everywhere else.
But just how serious is the situation in the U.K.? In 2013, Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, revealed it had 3,000 “people of interest” on its terrorist watch list.
The reported number of people having traveled from Britain to join the Islamic State terrorist group (ISIS) ranges from 850-1,600. And by 2016, an estimated 300-400 were said to have returned.
On May 26 of this year, British Security Minister Ben Wallace stated that MI5’s database of potential attackers now contains 23,000 names.
Catholics should feel, like others, the urgency to understand and respond to what is unfolding.
Christians and churches in the U.K. have been caught up in terrorist incidents. Father Pat Brown, a Catholic priest serving Parliament, told the Register how he was heading toward the area to say Mass for politicians on the day of the Westminster attack and went back the next day to lead prayer services in Parliament.
It was also reported that a devout Catholic from Spain, Ignacio Echeverria, died trying to protect a woman during the London Bridge attack.
And the Anglican Cathedral of Southwark, which has stood by London Bridge for more than 1,000 years, was stormed by armed police searching for the terrorists. It was only able to open its doors again a week later.
“There is no intelligence to suggest that places of worship are at a greater risk than other places where large numbers of people gather. However, we would ask everyone to be vigilant, whether they are at home, at work, out socializing or in a place of worship,” a spokesman from London’s Metropolitan Police Service told the Register.
Meanwhile, a spokesman from the Westminster Archdiocese told the Register: “As for security measures, Westminster Cathedral does have a security protocol for various eventualities, including terrorist attacks. For obvious reasons, it’s not possible to go into detail.”
The police department representative added, “Following a terrorist incident, it is important that we meet with faith leaders and utilize their networks to speak to communities, help us to reassure people and disseminate information, as well as helping us to understand how different communities are feeling so we can act accordingly, whether that be more reassurance patrols or to share any concerns they may have.”
Auxiliary Bishop John Wilson of the Archdiocese of Westminster has attended a number of these meetings. He told the Register that “more recently a ‘National 14-Day Plan’ was developed so that a considered response could be put in place following a terrorist attack. It outlines a protocol for what is to be done to draw communities together in the face of any threat.”
However, the police and security services have been widely criticized for failing to prevent these incidents. One newspaper, the Daily Mail, listed 18 opportunities security services across Europe had to apprehend the London Bridge terrorists.
“I think, despite want Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick says, there was a serious intelligence failure both in London last Saturday week and in Manchester on 22 May,” Anthony Glees, the director of the Center for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, told the Register.
“Failure, of course, can take many forms: a failure to collect intelligence, a failure to analyze intelligence properly and a failure to act upon it.”
Glees added: “It is, of course, a fact that some security successes had been scored prior to 2017. We are told that since 2013 MI5 and the counterterror police have disrupted 18 Islamist attacks, five of these in the past nine weeks.”
Churches and their worshippers need not feel unprepared, argues Nick Tolson, a former military and civil police officer with 14 years’ experience. He is the founder and director of National Churchwatch, which advises churches and clergy on crime and security issues.
He told the Register that the chance of a church in an urban area being caught up in a fast-moving terror attack is high.
“Churches need to have a response plan. If a knifeman is running around, do you lock the doors or evacuate the church, and who in that moment makes the decision?
“The best solution would be to have someone on the door who knows what they are looking for and can spot people acting suspiciously.”
ISIS’ Anti-Christian Ideology
In terms of counterterrorism, the effort to understand the ideological nature of violent jihadism needs to be better understood.
“The current Salafi jihadists, ISIS, are a merger between Salafi ideology and this modern radical ideology of jihadism constructed by Sayyid Qutb,” said Fawaz Greges, a professor of international relations from the London School of Economics.
“It’s a new utopia ideology, much like the utopias of Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, utopias for groups of young men and women who revolt against authority, family, elders, mosque leaders. And it’s win-win [in their eyes]: You die and go direct to heaven, or you live and construct utopia on earth.”
Sayyid Qutb was an Islamic theorist, author and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was executed in 1966 by the Egyptian government after his failed attempt to assassinate the president of the country.
In fact, the most recent and newest ISIS magazine, Rumiyah (“Rome”), which they yearn to conquer, declared, “The war on the Vatican and all other strongholds of Christianity continues” — next to a photo of Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict.
In fact, the magazine’s leading eight-page feature persistently urges supporters to murder Egypt’s Christians. Elsewhere the magazine calls on supporters to attack Christian places of worship.
Issue 15 of the now-defunct magazine Dabiq carried a lengthy theological article called “Break the Cross,” refuting many fundamental Christian doctrines like the divinity of Christ and the Trinity.
Issue 4 of Dabiq features a front-cover image of St. Peter’s Square in Rome and articles about waging war against “Roman Christians” and conquering Constantinople and Rome.
Promoting ‘British Values’
In a speech delivered June 4 regarding the continuing threat of terrorism, Prime Minster Theresa May said, “It will only be defeated when we turn people’s minds away from this violence and make them understand that our values — pluralistic British values — are superior to anything offered by the preachers and supporters of hate.”
Discussions about “British values” became popular under former Prime Minster David Cameron as part of the government’s “Prevent Strategy,” developed to combat violent jihadism.
But some groups, like the Family Education Trust, raise concerns around plans to combat nonviolent and non-ideological extremism, warning it could be used against a whole range of people, including those with traditional and Christian beliefs.
Then came numerous reports in British newspapers and shows about harsh inspections of faith schools and students being quizzed on “gay marriage.” U.K. politicians said publicly that classroom opposition to homosexuality or same-sex “marriage” could be classed as “extreme.” These stories are still making the news.
The same concerns are again being raised by Christian groups. On June 12, the Christian Institute, a leading education, research and campaign group, sent an email to supporters alerting them to ongoing dangers of a new government anti-extremism commission, which they fear will usher in state regulation of church youth work and force public officeholders to swear an equality oath.
Joseph Shaw, a Catholic philosopher and chairman of the U.K.’s Latin Mass Society, told the Register that the question of why new generations are attracted to the violent rejection of modern Western values must be considered.
“Part of the answer must be the deficiencies of those liberal values, which are dominated by individualism, materialism and hedonism. Christians in the West are perhaps the only people who can mount an intellectual and cultural critique of the majority values of our society, which need to change radically if they are to heal and satisfy the young men and women currently being drawn toward the appalling brutality we saw on the streets of London.”
Added Shaw, “Up to now we have failed to do this effectively, and as the Jesuit priest Samir Kalil Samir has pointed out, Christianity can too easily simply be identified with the West’s decadence by outsiders.”
Register correspondent Daniel Blackman writes from London.