Details emerging in the aftermath of the London Bridge attack are getting worse and worse for UK Prime Minister Theresa May, who was home secretary for six years before she became leader in the wake of the Brexit debacle last year.

May’s cuts of up to 17,000 police across Britain during her time at Home Office began drawing attention in the wake of the Manchester bombing, with evidence emerging of police warnings about the impact of cuts on their ability to fight terrorism. Now the issue is out in the open just days from the general election, with more claims about the impact of the cuts from police and a former David Cameron adviser calling for May to resign (albeit, Steve Hilton, the inspiration for Stewart Pearson in The Thick Of It).

Now, with seeming inevitability, it has emerged that at least one of the perpetrators of the attack, like the Manchester bomber and the perpetrator of the previous London Bridge attack, was known to intelligence agencies.

In fact, it’s hard to recall a terrorist incident anywhere in the West that hasn’t been carried out by perpetrators unknown to authorities. As the immediate shock of the attack gives way to detailed information, we always seem to learn that security agencies knew of the perpetrators or had been warned, often repeatedly, about them. That includes Man Haron Monis here; even the perpetrator of the overnight killing in Melbourne — now identified as a terrorist incident — had a long record of violent crime and previous links to terror plots.

Time and again, too, people in the community, and particularly in Muslim communities, have reported future perpetrators to police without action being taken. Bigots and the right rail at Muslims about terrorism, apparently oblivious to the fact that Muslim communities are doing their bit to alert agencies to threats, without action being taken.

The problem, of course, is maths. The level of resourcing required to keep people under targeted surveillance is extraordinarily high, and security and intelligence agencies only have so much money and people they can deploy. And stopping complex plots requiring communication and co-ordination is far easier than stopping a low-tech plot involving a van and some knives.

Which is why the constant calls for yet more surveillance — now from Malcolm Turnbull, who wants authorities to be able to access any encrypted communication — make so little sense. Security agencies already have insufficient resources to effectively monitor actual perpetrators, but governments want to dramatically expand the potential targets for monitoring by expanding surveillance. It’s the security equivalent of looking for a needle in a haystack by dumping several more haystacks on top. The likely result is hard-pressed security agencies have even less chance of spotting potential terrorists, making us less safe.

But this is the way the War on Terror has proceeded for 16 years. Trillions of dollars have been spent. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. Some of our most fundamental freedoms have been abolished (in the name of fighting people who “hate our freedoms”). We have become a surveillance society. And yet, judging by the conduct of governments and the media, we’re no safer than we were in 2001. There are few mass casualty terror plots; instead they’ve been replaced with low-tech, DIY terror attacks, often by the mentally ill, or drug addicts, long-term criminals or domestic violence perpetrators. 

The casualty numbers might be far lower, but for the media and authorities they’re treated as the same horrific, “existential” (to borrow George Brandis’ absurd term) threat as large-scale attacks, and draw the same response — ever more draconian anti-terror laws, ever more mass surveillance, ever more Islamophobic rhetoric (which, according to Tony Abbott, has never killed anyone, a disgusting insult to the two Portland men murdered by a Trump supporter spouting Islamophobic abuse just last week).

After a decade and a half of failure, you might expect policymakers to ask themselves what they’re doing wrong. But the War on Drugs has been proceeding for decades and authorities haven’t paused to reflect on why there’s been no success there, either. On that basis, the War on Terror looks like it will still be going for decades, with ever more money spent, ever more freedoms abrogated, and ever more casualties.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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