A Nearby Terror Attack in London

By George Friedman

Such events force us to think of how close we came to being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My wife and I are in London this week, and we have spent the last few days enjoying the city.

Yesterday, at about 2 p.m. London time, we thought we would take a walk to the Imperial War Museum. Our hotel is on the corner of Hyde Park, and the museum is across the Thames. We debated whether to go by Parliament over the Westminster Bridge, across the Lambeth Bridge directly to the museum or take a cab. It was chilly, so we took a cab. We thereby avoided a likely encounter with danger. At the same time we were planning our outing, a man was planning what could well have been our death.

The purpose of terror is to force each of us to think that there, but for the grace of God (or the temperature), go I. The night before we had gone to a play in the West End. People crowded the streets. That could have been the place where a car sweeping the sidewalk could have killed many, including us. Tonight, we are going to a concert at the Barbican Centre. There will be crowds. Now I wonder whether someone is planning an attack there too. I’m writing this on Thursday afternoon in London, so by tomorrow we will know.

Police officers stand guard by a cordon around Parliament on March 23, 2017 in London, England. Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Terrorism is a game of probabilities. The probability of any one of us being in the wrong place at the wrong time is very low. But terrorism creates an intimacy between terror and us. It causes us to think of where we were at the time of an attack and how close we came to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its power is contained in the possibility that the plans of someone unknown to us intersect with our own plans. In the military, they speak of force multipliers. This is the force multiplier of the Islamic terrorist: He compels you to be aware of his power over you. It is his decision whether some will die. I have taken risks in my life, but this is different. Terrorists want to cause a kind of fear that compels you to think of what might have been on an afternoon intended for pleasure.

This has not become corrosive to everyday life yet. It is a quantitative matter. The fewer the attacks, the lower the probability that they will affect you. The higher the number of attacks – even if they are still few – the greater the perception and reality of danger. And as a result, more people are forced to adjust their lives.

Terrorists try to use minimal strength to crush the morale of their enemies. Terrorists are few in number, which is necessary by the covert nature of their activity. The more there are who know each other, the more likely they will be betrayed. And the lone wolf attacker is the least likely to be caught before the attack. The Islamic State and related groups have crafted the most effective form of terror.

They have asked individuals to act with few, if any, collaborators, and to strike without warning, using equipment at hand: a car or a knife. The intent is to let everyone know that their lives are in the hands of invisible enemies. Even though we are not likely to be victims of terrorism, after each attack we are forced to think, “What if I had made a different decision?” In time, each of us will brush up against the possibility. Indeed, my wife and I had spoken, on the way to Covent Garden, of how we would hear screams before we saw an attacking car, and what we might do to save ourselves.

This is the real strength behind IS’ strategy. The lone wolf attack by Muslims is relatively rare. But knowing that Muslims are carrying out such attacks in unpredictable times and that no one can really detect the intentions of others, we wonder what the intent of any Muslims we meet might be after an attack like the one in London. Will he be the agent of our death? The brilliance of this strategy is that it drives a wedge between the Muslim world and the rest. The Muslims are feared, in turn treated unjustly, and the conflict intensifies.

The usual bromide is that we should not take counsel of our fear. I have no idea what that is supposed to mean. Does it mean that I should not dwell on the fact that, by chance, I avoided being caught up in the incident? Does it mean that I should ignore the fact that attacks likely will not be carried out by Swedish grandmothers, but more likely by Muslim males under the age of 30? Should I pretend that this is not a movement of Muslims, by telling myself that most Muslims would not do this? I can’t ignore the fact that some would do this, and that one brushed lightly by our lives on Wednesday. Of course, I should take counsel of my fears. My fears are real and reasonable, and the demand that I should not be afraid is unreasonable.

At the same time, if I take the position that all Muslims are killers, we dramatically increase the chance that the enemy – those Muslims who would kill on a chilly Wednesday afternoon in London – will win. There are 1.6 billion Muslims, and if all were willing to do what the man on Westminster Bridge did, our civilization would be, if not transformed into a nightmare, then constantly afraid. It is the solemn hope of IS that we treat all Muslims as terrorists, to bind together the Islamic world under the jihadist banner.

Some will say that terrorism should not be viewed as Islamic. At this point in history, that is an incomprehensible position. Some will say that all Muslims are potential enemies. That is a prescription for an endless war Euro-American civilization might well lose. In dealing with an enemy, dividing them is the only viable strategy, and the Islamic world already has deep divisions. Muslims are not all alike, and some are hostile to others.

In this, as in all wars, realism and prudence are required. The attacks are part of a movement of Muslims whose numbers are substantial but far from encompassing all of Islam. Our allies must be those Muslims who oppose this movement. Just as the key to undermining communism was the American understanding with communist China, so the key here is allying with Muslim enemies of radical jihadism. If none exist, we will be in trouble. But there are many. However, to apply this strategy, we must admit that this is a war with Muslims. Not all perhaps, but many. As long as we are oblivious to the fact that we are at war with Muslims, the situation is hopeless. As long as we are oblivious to the fact that many Muslims hate the jihadists, we have no strategy. And we must remember that many of the enemies of jihadism do not like us much, either. But as with the communist Chinese, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

It is odd that a late winter walk in London should end in these thoughts. But then it was Winston Churchill who said, “If Hitler invaded hell I would at least make a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” Some in England said Germany should not be confused with Nazism. Others said all Germans should be annihilated. Churchill regarded the first statement as fatuous and the second as brutishly stupid.

In the meantime, we are in a strange but real war, and a walk in Covent Garden now must involve a discussion of what to do if death approaches.

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