Liverpool Women’s Hospital bombing – should we be concerned about the effectiveness of our counter-terrorism system?
Questions have been raised regarding the effectiveness of UK counter-terrorist strategies following the explosion of a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Sunday. A decision has since been made by UK authorities to raise the terror threat level to ‘severe’, potentially suggesting a lack of confidence from counter-terrorist defence forces.
The assailant in the attack has been identified as 32-year-old Eman Al Swealmeen, who rode as a passenger in the car. The driver, David Perry, managed to escape the vehicle after the explosion had occurred, and has not suffered any fatal injuries. Mr Perry says it is a ‘miracle’ that he is alive and is thankful that nobody else was injured in the ‘evil act’.
What information do the police have, and how can they act on it?
Police believe that Al Swealmeen had been planning the attack for months, having recovered ‘significant items’ from his home address. Four other men had also been arrested following the attack – three on the Sunday, and the other on the following day – and were suspected ‘associates’ of the taxi passenger according to Head of Counter Terrorism Policing North West, Russ Jackson. All of them, though, have since been released as the police are ‘satisfied with the accounts they have provided’ throughout their interviews. This raises the question, however, as to how the planning of this attack managed to slip under the radar.
In a press conference following the attack, Jackson had said that police knew the identity of the attacker but would not confirm at the time. Was Al Swealmeen, then, already a suspected terrorist? He did have a history of mental health episodes, having previously been sanctioned under the mental Health Act for behaviour wielding a knife. It was later revealed that he was not believed to be known to MI5. Regardless, this begs the question of what data is held by counter-terrorist forces regarding suspected terrorists, and why seemingly so little preventive action is taken. It goes without saying, that ‘few if any would argue that executive officials should wait until the actual realization of catastrophic terrorist attacks and not take actions to ward off such security threats,’ but there are, however, some legal barriers in barriers in place which make this process more complicated, including those protecting an individual’s right to privacy which limits authorities’ capability to gather intelligence. There has nonetheless been significant progress made in the way of terrorist prevention in recent years, such as the Government’s Pursue programme. Pursue aims to investigate terrorist activity in order to prevent future occurrences and has created new powers available to defence authorities, including the ability to retain Internet Connection Records.
Nevertheless, fears persist regarding the effectiveness of counter-terrorist strategies, with police fearing that threats may be going unnoticed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Authorities say that national lockdowns have left the youth more vulnerable to radical propaganda, due to the amount of time spent at home isolated from friends, and the increased exposure to online media. Police report that the number of people referred to the Prevent programme – another government counter-terrorism programme, aimed at reducing radicalisation of youths – had dropped to the lowest level in five years. It is crucial, then, that authorities remain aware of any potential increase in terrorist ideology and propaganda online, in an attempt to limit the exposure of extreme ideologies.
Terrorism on the rise?…
The decision to raise the UK terror threat level was made after the bombing, which closely follows the death of Conservative MP Sir David Amess. The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), part of the MI5 which makes recommendations independently from government, had assessed the level of threat in the UK and recommended that the threat level be moved up from ‘substantial’ to ‘severe’. A ‘severe’ threat is classed as an attack being ‘highly likely’ and is the second highest alert below ‘critical’.
According to an analysis by BBC security correspondent, Gordon Corera, the rise in the threat level alert is not based on specific intelligence of an ongoing threat in Liverpool, rather it is based on an overall assessment by the JTAC.
Still, it remains clear that the recent attacks have brought to light an ineffectiveness of UK counter-terrorism strategy and plotting terrorists may then be ‘emboldened’ by recent events. The head of UK Counter Terrorism Policing has advised the British public to be ‘more vigilant’, as the Christmas shopping period may see large groups of people gathered in public spaces where attacks are very possible.
The decision to declare the explosion as a terrorist incident looks to be based more so on the methodology used, rather than Al Swealmeen’s ideology. Al Swealmeen was a Christian convert. Now, the Church of England has been met with controversy, as it has been discovered that Al Swealmeen had previously been unsuccessful in an attempt to gain asylum in the UK and then converted to Christianity – adopting the name Enzo Almeni in doing so – in a supposed attempt to bolster his asylum claim. Liverpool Cathedral has said that it is not aware of ‘any link between conversion and asylum system abuse’ and Liverpool Cathedral, where Al Swealmeen’s conversion ceremony took place, has said to have ‘developed robust processes’ to uncover whether an individual’s motivation for religious conversion was genuine. One member of the congregation of the Church has since received death threats following the attack, and it is said that members of the Church from Middle Eastern backgrounds feel ‘unwelcome’.
Whilst there is no evidence, according to Church representative Benedict Ryan, that being a member of the Church would aid an asylum claim, Religious Affairs journalist Harry Farley claims that ‘if someone can prove they would be persecuted in their home country as a result of their religious belief, that can form the basis of an asylum claim’. The question remains, then, whether or not Al Swealmeen’s conversion to Christianity aided him in staying in the country after his ‘long and complicated series of applications and appeals’, and whether this facilitated the attack to happen or if he would have been legally reprimanded sooner had he not undergone the conversion.
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