Dr Dave Sloggett explores a number of issues raised by the latest act of terrorism at Parsons Green.
If we needed reminding the latest act of terror in the United Kingdom shows the enduring and somewhat chaotic nature of the emerging threat. On this occasion, however the bomb-maker failed. The device did not detonate. It deflagrated. A technical term to indicate that the pressure build-up in the device did not create the kind of shock wave required to create a full-scale detonation.
It was a shoddy attempt at building a bomb. One that shows the problems so-called home-grown bomb makers have when they try and practice their art having been instructed purely by manuals on the Internet. In this case language helped save lives. The failure of the bomb-maker to understand the subtleties of his or her art because they used on on-line bomb-manual is obvious. Those who have been in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or any one of a number of countries, such as Libya, would not make such basic mistakes.
With over twenty-five people injured, many of whom clearly received burns from the flash fire that was created by the initiation of the device, the bomber did not achieve their aim. Had the device worked the fatality count would have been significant. Yet still a small number of people’s lives have been changed forever. The psychological impact on them will quickly become apparent. Terrorist’s victims are not those that just appear as a list of fatalities.
Once again, a terrorist group returned to one of their favourite targets, this time however it was above ground, not below, as was the case of the attack on 7 July 2005. So-called Islamic State (IS) were quick to claim the attack. Time will tell if the claim by IS can be proven. But it is clear that this looks more like the work of an amateur rather than a professionally-trained bomb-maker.
With the movement under severe pressure having lost Mosul in Iraq and on the point of being removed from its notional capital in Raqqa in Syria, its leadership is desperate to associate itself with any act of violence in the west – no matter how simple its execution. Knives, hammers, guns, lorries, cars and bombs, anything will do as far as they are concerned at the moment.
Attacking a train on the District Line of the London Underground at a relatively obscure station called Parsons Green at around 0820 in the morning was unlikely to be that successful. The train was on the outer reaches of the London Underground. Bigger targets such as Sloane Square, Kensington and Earl’s Court lay further along the track. With Earl’s Court known for its international diaspora of tourists the bomber might have expected richer pickings further down the line.
Suggestions appearing in the media that the bomber remotely detonated the device may prove to be a false lead. While remotely detonating a device allows the bomber to survive it carries with it risks that the signal to detonate the device may be erratic. That in part may explain why the device detonated where it did. The first time the bomber was able to get through.
Of course, the bomber could have simply exited the train and got far enough away but have remained in sight of the device to increase his chances of successfully sending the detonation signal. CCTV imagery will no doubt provide a clearer picture.
The bomber could also have used a timer to trigger the device. Mirroring what happen in Madrid in 2004 when ten devices detonated out of fourteen that were placed on trains heading into the centre of Madrid. That issue of remote detonation was a factor that weighed on the minds of the attackers in Madrid. Combined with their imperative that they survived the attack led them to build bombs that were triggered on timers.
Irrespective of the means by which the detonation occurred a valid question is why Parsons Green? The area is hardly iconic. As its name suggests it has a large green at its centre which is surrounded by public houses, coffee shops and upmarket shops. It is a middle-class area whose dwellings exhibit a Victorian terraced façade. An area unlikely to be on the uppermost parts of so-called Islamic States targeting list.
While police hunt for the bomber and the threat level has been raised to critical, perhaps assuming he or she intends to attack again, it is difficult to be certain of the objectives of the attacker. If it was indeed a random act of violence, then the bomber missed an opportunity to injure more people.
While terrorism is often about the act, not the impact, this attack hardly rates in the long list of what has happened this year alone in the United Kingdom. As an impactive attack it barely makes it out of the blocks as an act of terrorism.
Countless times it can be said that if the terrorist had done this or that differently the outcome would have been so different. From a resilience viewpoint, after severe cutbacks in the capabilities of the Fire and Rescue Services and other emergency services, the lessons to take away are that we must retain capabilities to deal with much more severe outcomes. We have ridden our luck. The attack at Parsons Green is simply another example. Terrorist groups are unlikely not to take heed of their failures and set in train measures to improve their outcomes with a huge consequence from a fatality viewpoint.
With so many people now heading back to Western Europe from Syria and Iraq who will not make such simple mistakes the future is not encouraging. Any sensible government would at this time halt all attempts to further rationalise the Fire and Rescue Service. Arguably, since the end of World War Two, the situation we face has never been more difficult. This is worse than the period when the Irish Republican Army was active.
Leaders of the Fire and Rescue Services across the United Kingdom and their authorities should not cut a single job, tender or fire station from their current inventory. Enough is enough. The time for an end to austerity with respect to the emergency services.
The next attack may just prove how the measures that have been taken so far have cut beyond the bone. Under pressure that bone will fracture and people will die. It is a lesson that must be learned, quickly. But that is not the only obvious point to emerge. There is another far more troubling indicator. And that is complacency.
But the one enduring question to emerge from this attack is what were the public thinking? Despite the regular announcements on trains that drone on about not leaving luggage behind or unattended it seems the wider British public have not yet fully engaged with the threat.
Why was the bomber able to leave the device and walk away? When Damon Smith planted his bomb on the Jubilee Line no-one appeared to notice. It begs the question what were the people in carriage doing? Did no-one see the bomber leave the device? Did it really look like a bucket of paint?
Surely in this day and age it should have raised suspicions? Even those familiar with the pattern of life that sees labourers off to major building sites in London on the tube first thing should have noticed this shopping bag with fairy lights and a towel over the top.
The answer to the issue of what were the public doing is simple. Not paying attention. It is likely they were tuning out to their world, listening to music, on their mobile phone, reading a book/ newspaper or simply day-dreaming. Whatever it is time the British public woke up and took responsibility for what is going on around them.
The threat is plan to see and the vigils and political announcements that we will not be cowed by terrorists are all well and good. Equally pronouncements that we are not scared are also very brave. But when the chips were down people fled the scene. Trampling over those that were not able to move as fast. The ethos of the Three Musketeers was lost in the stampede.
Survival brings out the most basic of instincts in human beings. If the attack had been more carefully crafted and executed that basic instinct would have seen more people die. Of all the lessons to emerge from this latest attack, arguably that is the most important.
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