One of the jihadists who committed the latest terrorist attack in London — in which men slammed a van into a crowd of people, and then emerged to slash and stab random people who just happened to be present — was known to and under investigation by British police at the time of the attack. ISIS has since claimed that the attackers were members of that terrorist group.
The “known wolf” was Khuram Shazad Butt, a British citizen of Pakistani descent. Amazingly, his jihadist sympathies were so well known that he was featured in a 2016 British TV documentary called “The Jihadis Next Door” in which he is seen unfurling an ISIS flag at a British park. He was part of a group that was identified as supportive of jihadist ideologies and that supported institution of Sharia law in Great Britain. In addition, Butt’s neighbors have stated that they had reported Butt to the police on several occasions. The police have stated, however, that while Butt and the group he belonged to were known to the authorities and under scrutiny, “there was no intelligence to suggest that this attack was being planned and the investigation had been prioritised accordingly.”
The London attack is one of several recent “known wolf” incidents, in which an individual with apparently radicalized jihadist views who was under some form of police investigation then proceeded to commit a terrorist act. The scenario raises a number of difficult questions for police — and for western societies.
Great Britain reportedly has identified thousands of people who are considered to be potential threats. What should be done with them? What level of concern must be reached before someone with apparently extremist views receives more active attention, like significant surveillance efforts? How should governments react to anonymous tips from neighbors? And if police determine someone is a significant potential threat, should they be jailed? Deported? And what level of evidence should be shown before such penalties can be imposed? If we wait until the threat level becomes critical, are we running too great a risk?
Everyone wants to promote security, but it’s also easy to see how a desire for security could overwhelm and undercut the personal freedoms and civil rights that we enjoy in open western societies. That is no doubt small consolation, however, to the relatives of the people who were killed in the London attack by a man whose extremist views caused him to be featured in “The Jihadis Next Door.” We’ve got to figure out how to deal with the radicalized people in a way that respects our civil institutions, religious rights, and presumptions of innocence while also more effectively preventing more mass attacks.