October 20, 2021

IntelBrief: Killing of MP Highlights Ongoing Terrorist Threats in UK

(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • David Amess, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, was stabbed and killed last week by an individual believed to be motivated by Islamist extremism. 
  • Amess’ murder has been labeled a terrorist attack; the murder of politicians by terrorists and extremists is a direct challenge to democracy and to the state itself.
  • Since March 2017, there have been thirteen separate terrorist attacks in the UK, despite the security services foiling an astonishing 31 attacks during this same period.
  • As in the U.S., the online vitriol directed at politicians in the UK is growing increasingly intense, contributing to a frenzied virtual environment where hatred and threats of violence risk becoming normalized.

David Amess, a Conservative member of the British Parliament, was killed last week in an event labeled a terrorist attack, perpetrated by an individual believed to be motivated by Islamist extremism. Amess was stabbed at a constituency meeting held in Belfairs Methodist Church in the town of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, 40 miles east of London. The perpetrator, Ali Harbi Ali, a twenty-five-year-old British man of Somali heritage, is being held under the Terrorism Act, with Islamist motivations suspected. At one point, Ali was referred to the PREVENT scheme several years ago, although according to the BBC, was “never a formal subject of interest to MI5.” His father, Harbi Ali Kullane, was previously a senior adviser to the former Prime Minister of Somalia and reportedly had himself worked on counter-extremism projects in Mogadishu. Reflecting on the life and death of David Amess, United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “While his death leaves a vacuum that will not and can never be filled, we will cherish his memory, we will celebrate his legacy and we will never allow those who commit acts of evil to triumph over the democracy and Parliament that Sir David Amess loved so much.”

Amess is the second British politician to be murdered in the last five years. Jo Cox, a lawmaker from the Labour Party who opposed Brexit, was murdered in a terrorist attack committed by Thomas Mair, himself influenced by the UK’s evolving violent far-right extremist scene. Back in 2010, a young British woman named Roshonara Choudhry stabbed Stephen Timms, another lawmaker from the Labour Party, in an attempted killing also reportedly motivated by Islamist extremism and also during a routine constituency meeting. Terrorist acts aim to effect sociopolitical change; the murder (and attempted murders) of politicians is a direct challenge to democracy, pluralism, and to the state itself. These attacks represent an effort to intimidate, terrorize, and cow those with whom extremists disagree, in an attempt to silence differing views. The resultant impact on the relationship between constituents and MPs, between citizen and government, will serve as a stark reminder of the enduring effects of terrorist violence and the importance of ensuring the response does not compromise the values projected by the state. 

Since March 2017, there have been thirteen separate terrorist attacks in the UK, with 11 attributed to Islamists and two attributed to far-right extremists. During this same time period, the UK security services have foiled an astonishing 31 separate terrorist attacks on British soil. In some instances, far-right violent extremists seek to emulate jihadists, and high-profile terrorist attacks can lead to reciprocal radicalization, where neo-Nazis and jihadists attempt to “up the ante” by increasing the frequency and lethality of attacks. More chaos also fits into the accelerationists’ narratives, as violence motivated by a range of views across ideological spectrum feeds into a sense of anarchy and lawlessness against the state and its institutions. There have been numerous teenagers involved in the far-right violent extremism milieu in the UK, suggesting that the challenge will be a generational one and that responses need to be far more nuanced in addressing age and gender dimensions. Authorities have been confounded by the increasingly young ages of terrorism suspects. According to the Wall Street Journal, MI5 was actively investigating an estimated 3,000 extremists in 600 separate investigations. Furthermore, the security agency also believes that there could be approximately 40,000 people not considered immediate threats, but who could “potentially become active terrorists,” with many not physically based in the UK.

As is the case in the United States and many other states, the online vitriol spewed by anonymous citizens and directed at politicians and elites in the UK is growing ever more intense. This contributes to a frenzied virtual environment in which hatred and threats of violence are so common that they seem quotidian, and risk becoming normalized. Online hatred and violence against women are also rising threats affecting activists, journalists, government officials, and others. This cross-section of issues highlights the complex relationships between misogyny and violent extremism, underscoring the importance for law enforcement and security actors of taking stronger measures to address violence against women. 

Following the murder of Sir David Amess, Justice Secretary Dominic Raab suggested that the “online hate” that members of parliament are subject to is beyond the pale, describing it as “the elephant in the room” as he reflected on the role of social media in recent terror attacks. The British strategy has been a proactive one, especially when compared to other Western countries, though it has also raised some concerns about freedom of expression online and privacy safeguards. Reports that the perpetrator had been referred to the UK’s PREVENT program, tasked with identifying early risks and developing preventive interventions, highlights the complexity of developing a program in the pre-crime space, where engagement remains voluntary and resources for follow up can be stretched. In the wake of the most recent attack, these conversations will take on an additional sense of urgency. Although this has the characteristics of a lone actor or so-called “lone wolf” attack, it still may be the byproduct of an ecosystem of extremism online and a series of “real life” drivers that must be tackled.