Death of Sir David Amess: what the new age of low-cost, lone-actor terrorism means for UK national security

By Eray Arda Akartuna
AML, Blockchain & Cyber Analyst

For a second time in five years, a UK Member of Parliament has been stabbed to death in an incident of terrorism or far-right extremism (some would legitimately argue that they are one and the same). Sir David Amess, the Conservative MP for Southend West for over 40 years, was killed on 15 October while meeting constituents during a local surgery, a manner almost identical to the killing of Labour’s Batley & Spen MP Joe Cox in 2016.[1] The egregious nature of these incidents has sent shockwaves through Britain’s democracy and the communities that both MPs lost their lives while serving.

Part of the debate following Sir Amess’ murder, which the police have since declared as linked to Islamist terrorism, has centred on safety concerns regarding Britain’s elected representatives. Numerous MPs have spoken out about routine death threats and have questioned whether face-to-face MP surgeries (routine meetings with constituents) should continue.[2] The UK’s Home Secretary Priti Patel has asked police forces to review MPs’ security while refusing to rule out banning anonymity on social media, where the bulk of anonymous abuse and death threats takes place.[3]

That debate, however genuine and legitimate, overlooks a crucial problem that would remain even if MPs cut off face-to-face meetings with their constituents. The attack that killed Sir Amess was conducted not through elaborate planning or vast sums of financing, but with only a knife – an everyday household item easily acquirable on the high street for less than £10.

This is concerning for three key reasons. Firstly, it means that such attacks are becoming more ‘accessible’ to lone actor terrorists with no funding, given their low cost to initiate. Other instances of this are becoming more widespread across Europe, with stabbing and vehicle ramming attacks (which cost no more than the going daily rate for a rental van) becoming the tactic of choice for Islamists and right-wing terrorists. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have called supporters in Europe to initiate such low-cost attacks.[4]

Secondly, the simplicity of the attack and the low-cost nature of the attack weapon highlights the inability of security forces to pre-emptively track suspicious transactions that may identify suspects before they strike. A string of transactions for explosive substances, for example, may reveal a bomb plot before it occurs.[5] However, a single knife purchase can hardly be regarded as a cause for further inquiry. Crucial warning signs that could prevent an attack, therefore, are no longer observable through traditional means.

Finally, stabbing attacks require no more than a split close encounter between the suspect and victim to succeed – unless MPs remove themselves completely from the public and are constantly protected by heavy security, attacks such as this will not be thwarted by only cancelling constituency surgeries. Any and all public engagements would have to be suspended to theoretically minimise the risk to zero. Since this is unrealistic and considering that copycat attacks may now be inspired by the killings of Sir Amess and Joe Cox, the threat to MPs remains severe.

There will, therefore, need to be an increased focus on the new vectors and industries that terrorists are now using to conduct their attacks. These include providers of rental vehicles, knives and acid, the latter of which is responsible for a surge of acid attacks in the UK capital since 2016. Though no acid attack incident has yet been declared a terrorist offence, the potential for it to be used for one in the future remains a realistic possibility.[6]

Counter-terrorism policies targeting these new sectors of concern need to address the three problems above, namely they need to be resistant to displacement, the idea that a crime can easily occur in a situation where a prevention measure is absent.[7] The new barriers on the UK’s bridges to prevent attacks like the 2017 London Bridge vehicle ramming attack is a clear example[8] – though they may prevent an attack on a bridge, the un-secured streets before and after the bridge are still vulnerable. However, it is unrealistic (and even undesirable for many other reasons, including costs, inconvenience, and aesthetics) to initiate prevention measures across all possible targets.

The focus therefore needs to turn to small and feasible measures that do not inconvenience the wider public. A Liverpool-based cutlery firm, for example, has joined a wide range of stakeholders in the UK in devising ‘stab-resistant’ knives with curved edges.[9] Their design reduces their utility for use by terrorists and criminals, or at the very least reduces the risk of an attack being fatal. However, initiating a universal adoption of this new type of knife, while making existing types of knives obsolete is a gargantuan task that will span years. This demonstrates that there is no single or quick solution, and any response needs to be comprehensive and collaborative across all relevant industries to tackle these new terrorist threats from every angle.

Another such relevant industry, beyond producers of at-risk goods and services, are charities and law enforcement that oversee deradicalisation programmes or support for those previously involved in knife crime.[10] Not only are such programmes effective for reducing threats, but they are also crucial sources of new warning signs that may be instrumental in identifying active threats before they are initiated. Common behaviours amongst former radicalised lone actors, for example, could be relayed to services dealing with at-risk goods and services (e.g. knives or rental vehicles) such that they can spot and address suspicious activity.

This demonstrates the need for two key vectors in modern-day terrorism response that are currently underutilised. Firstly, increased co-operation between relevant industries (charities, law enforcement, vendors of at-risk goods and services) needs to increase for the sake of more proactive information sharing. Secondly, this collaboration and the subsequent response by each industry needs to be overseen and facilitated as part of an effective strategy.

This is crucial for encouraging individual stakeholders to accept their responsibilities and adopt necessary preventative measures. Without clear encouragement and pressure, many (particularly private companies) would be unwilling to accept that their products or services are now a terrorism risk in the modern age, let alone admit their share of the responsibility for addressing it. A clear multi-industry strategy, fronted by legislative incentives and public campaigns, is therefore the only clear way of tackling this new strain of low-cost, lone-actor terrorism. Though results may only become evident in the long-term, this will increase the chances of terrorist actors, like the individual that killed Sir Amess, being detected before they cause a loss of life.

References:

[1] Lizzie Dearden and Holly Bancroft, ‘Sir David Amess MP Dies after Being Stabbed at Constituency Surgery’, The Independent, 15 October 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/david-amess-death-stabbed-mp-b1939141.html.

[2] ‘The Murder of Sir David Amess Will Change the Nature of British Democracy | The Economist’, The Economist, 16 October 2021, https://www.economist.com/britain/2021/10/16/the-murder-of-sir-david-amess-will-change-the-nature-of-british-democracy.

[3] Andrew Woodcock, ‘Priti Patel Considering Removing Right to Anonymity on Social Media to Stop “Relentless” Abuse of MPs | The Independent’, The Independent, 17 October 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/priti-patel-david-amess-social-media-b1939775.html.

[4] Pamela Engel, ‘ISIS and Al Qaeda Have Specifically Called for the Type of Attack That Just Happened in London’, Business Insider, accessed 18 October 2021, https://www.businessinsider.com/isis-al-qaeda-london-attack-2017-3.

[5] OECD, ‘Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Awareness Handbook for Tax Examiners and Tax Auditors’ (Paris: OECD, 2019), https://www.oecd.org/tax/crime/money-laundering-and-terrorist-financing-awareness-handbook-for-tax-examiners-and-tax-auditors.pdf.

[6] Sarah Marsh, ‘Surge in Acid Attacks in England Leads to Calls to Restrict Sales | Crime | The Guardian’, The Guardian, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jul/07/surge-in-acid-attacks-in-england-leads-to-calls-to-restrict-sales.

[7] Shane D. Johnson, Rob T. Guerette, and Kate Bowers, ‘Crime Displacement: What We Know, What We Don’t Know, and What It Means for Crime Reduction’, Journal of Experimental Criminology 10, no. 4 (1 December 2014): 549–71, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11292-014-9209-4.

[8] Transport for London | Every Journey Matters, ‘Protecting London’s Bridges’, Transport for London, accessed 18 October 2021, https://www.tfl.gov.uk/corporate/safety-and-security/protecting-london-s-bridges.

[9] Jonathan Humphries, ‘The Knives Invented in Speke That Are “Impossible to Stab With”’, Liverpool Echo, 23 September 2019, https://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/new-knives-invented-liverpool-impossible-16954882.

[10] ‘Training on Radicalisation’, FIRST-LINE PRACTITIONERS (blog), 6 November 2020, https://www.firstlinepractitioners.com/training-on-radicalisation/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: