Theresa May must resist playing politics with terrorism

06/06/2017  -  8.43

George Kassimeris, Professor of Security Studies

Theresa May has a serious terrorist problem in her hands – there’s no question about it. In the space of less than three months, the UK has suffered three terrorist attacks, resulting in 32 deaths and there is most probably more to come, if we are being brutally honest with ourselves. Both the Manchester and London attacks took place in the middle of a tense election campaign (which has now been suspended twice), ahead of the June 8th General Election turning inevitably national security into a central  issue.

The prime minister has said all the right things expressing public outrage and showing resolve and determination in the face of barbarity. Until now, that is. Because in her ‘enough-is-enough’ statement after the London Bridge attacks the prime minister has done the opposite of what she should be doing as a leader managing an on-going terrorist crisis, namely promoting public anxiety instead of alleviating it.

The attack on London Bridge she declared showed that there was "far too much tolerance" of Islamist extremism in Britain today. The PM also warned us there was "a new trend in the threat we face" and that while the three recent terror attacks in the UK were not linked by "common networks", they were "bound together by the single evil ideology of Islamic extremism". There is nothing new, since the 7/7 attack in London, about these loose and separate networks whose followers combine fanaticism, medieval religious beliefs and a willingness to use indiscriminate violence. As for the ideology of Islamic extremism, which will be with us for some time, we can’t defeat it simply by introducing more draconian legislation and arresting more and more people. We need realistic policies which will stop these young people turning their grievances into terrorism.

Theresa May’s statement reminded me, in fact, of Tony Blair’s 10 Downing Street mantra of ‘the rules of the game have changed’ which began as an explanation and a justification but ended up as a divisive choice between order and chaos. To a certain degree, we are where we are because Tony Blair spent half a decade deliberately confusing the personal with the political and the political with national security.

One does not need a PhD in counter-terrorism studies to realise that all this hyperbole plays directly into the hands of the terrorists. For the most powerful weapon in the terrorist arsenal is fear. A key goal, if not the central one, of terrorist tactics is to undermine confidence in our security and in ourselves which is why governments should avoid at all costs adding to terrorism’s psychological impact.

In a terrorist emergency such as this, when our lives may be in danger, we have no option but to trust our political leaders to act quickly and decisively to protect public safety.  Insecurity can take many forms, but nothing else plays quite so sharply on a civilian population’s sense of vulnerability as random, deliberate terrorist violence so, in a time of crisis, the public need to believe that their leaders act in good faith.

For all the horror of the recent attacks, the risk of death from terrorist violence in the UK is minimal. Theresa May has an election to win but she must resist playing politics with the threat posed by Islamic extremism in order to promote a credible anti-terrorism narrative of an overwhelmingly dangerous enemy. It is not a good idea. It will come back to haunt her and create for the country more problems than it actually solves.

Today we face two dangers: the risk of what jihadist militants might do to us and also the risk of what we might do to our country out of fear and overreaction. The aim of the terrorists is to provoke fear, division and an overreaction that will strengthen them. They want to feed Islamophobia and to provoke repressive measures that could be used to enlist disaffected Muslims in supporting violence. Theresa May, if she continues to lead this country, must not help them to succeed.


Professor George Kassimeris is chair in Security Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He tweets @gkassimeris. This was originally posted in the HuffPost.UK