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Here Are 7 Questions Facing The British Government, MI5, And Police After Recent Terror Attacks

The attacks on Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge have prompted calls for an overhaul of the UK's counterterror strategy. Here are the issues that need to be addressed.

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Since March, the UK has endured three terror attacks across two cities: a vehicle and knife attack on Westminster Bridge, killing five; a suicide bomb attack on an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22; and another van and knife attack on London Bridge, now believed to have killed eight.

In all three attacks, police and emergency services on the scene were universally praised for their swiftness and courage. But in the aftermath of what is already Britain's bloodiest year for terrorism since 2005, counterterror police, MI5, and the Home Office are facing questions as to whether they could have done more to prevent the attacks.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Conservative MP and one-time chair of parliament's intelligence and security committee, told BuzzFeed News it is never possible to eliminate the threat of attacks entirely.

“People would be naive if they thought there was some procedure that could eliminate the risks of these attacks,” he said.

“We’re dealing with a terrorist failure. They’d love to be able to hijack planes, or to infiltrate Buckingham Palace, but all they can do now is instead persuade some deluded people to carry out these crude attacks.

“This is a sign of terrorist weakness, even if it has horrific consequences for those affected."

Here are the key questions facing the agencies, and why they're being posed:

1. How were individuals already known to police and the security services able to carry out the attacks? And why had some been downgraded to lower-priority watchlists?

Khalid Masood, the attacker on Westminster Bridge, was known to police for non–terror-related offences, and had been reported to MI5 – allegedly on multiple occasions – but assessed to not be a direct threat.

Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, had been on a high-priority MI5 watchlist potentially as recently as 12 months ago, and was then downgraded.

And Khuram Butt, one of the London Bridge attackers, had not only been investigated by MI5 and the police – and been downgraded – but even appeared in the Channel 4 documentary The Jihadis Next Door.

These facts have put the spotlight again on how MI5 makes decisions about who to track closely and who to monitor less aggressively. They also raise questions over whether the agency has enough resources to monitor the people it needs to.

Rifkind told BuzzFeed News that MI5 has roughly three groups of people it tracks to different degrees: around 500 people it believes may be planning actual acts of terror, around 3,000 people known to be sympathetic to terror but not actively planning to carry it out, and 23,000 people potentially sympathetic to attackers.

When MI5 gets tips, for example from the terrorism hotline, these are "logged and investigated", he said.

"If there is hard evidence, the agency will go to the home secretary for a warrant to intercept their communications, or to follow them in the street," he said. "But some are so security-conscious that even monitoring their email and voicemail might reveal no plans to conduct any attacks."

In such cases, the person may then be downgraded to a lower-priority list.

2. Why was a suspect on an EU terror watchlist able to enter the UK?

Leon Neal / Getty Images

According to Italian media reports, London Bridge attacker Youssef Zaghba, an Italian, was stopped by authorities in the country when attempting a trip to Syria. When searched and found in possession of extremist material, he reportedly told police: "I am a terrorist." He was not subsequently charged, but was added to an EU-wide watchlist that can be used by other countries – including the UK – to deny access.

Work and pensions secretary Damian Green (pictured above), a former Home Office minister, acknowledged on BBC Radio 4's Today programme that this watchlist "should" have stopped Zaghba entering the UK.

“I obviously don’t know what happened in this case and speculating without the full facts would be wrong," he said. "There’s a police investigation, it’s still going on."

UK border control is under the purview of the Borders Agency, which is run from the Home Office – which also is ultimately responsible for MI5, raising questions for the department, including from Labour MPs.

Serious Qs for Border Force (run directly by Home Office since 2012) on Manchester &London attacks. Were these men stopped at border or not?

3. How was someone on a high-priority terrorism watchlist able to work on the London underground?


Khuram Butt, who had been on the police and intelligence agency radar for some time, was allowed to join and work for Transport for London on the underground for a period of around six months before being dismissed for reasons unrelated to extremism.

This role raises questions about whether this appointment posed a risk to the travelling public, given the access it would have given him to infrastructure. This would have given him insider knowledge of how the system worked, and the potential insight into vulnerabilities – especially as experts say reconnaissance of targets is a key factor in terror attacks.

One explanation may lie in the fact that it's not in itself criminal in the UK to hold extremist views, so authorities may have had no legitimate reason to interfere in Butt's appointment.

Speaking in general terms – and not specifically about TfL's hiring decisions – Rifkind noted of Butt: "In this case, one appeared on TV and showed he had a great deal of support for Islamic extremism. But that does not in itself make him a terrorist. It is not a crime to hold extreme opinions."

4. What evidence is there that the UK needs more powers to tackle terrorism?

Wpa Pool / Getty Images

In the wake of the London Bridge attack, Theresa May declared that "enough is enough" and pledged to introduce new laws to tackle terrorism, counter the spread of extremist material, restrict the use of encryption online, and even scrap UK human rights laws, should she win the election.

But the UK already has some of the strongest surveillance powers in the Western world, especially since the passage of the Investigatory Powers Act in the first months of May's tenure as prime minister.

This, coupled with the wealth of information police and intelligence agencies already had on many of the attackers, has led some to question whether the UK needs any new powers, or whether the main question is one of resources and priorities.

In a series of tweets Thomas Rid, professor of security studies at King's College London, set out the risks of May's approach.

"Reducing security is more problematic: we can’t unprotect terrorist online while keeping our children and businesses protected," he noted. "Less online security, in this counterterrorism context, mainly means trying to limit the use of end-to-end encryption. [The] focus on 'big companies' is misleading. A range of secure comms channels will remain available to militants no matter what big firms do.

"If the UK continues trying to roll back core liberal values by messing with an open and secure internet, then the terrorists win."

5. Have policing cuts had an impact on the UK's ability to find would-be terrorists and prevent attacks?

Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

The recent terror attacks have fuelled a political row over police funding and cuts. The Labour party, the Police Federation, and some former senior officers have noted that the government has cut around 20,000 police officers since May became home secretary in 2010, and reduced the number of armed police.

May, by contrast, said she has protected the UK's counterterror budget, frozen the police budget since 2015, and introduced more funding for armed officers.

Even if the counterterror budget was insulated from cuts – which is disputed – there is debate over whether cuts to neighbourhood policing makes it more difficult to build trust with communities to encourage people to come forward.

On the wider issue of the government's CONTEST and Prevent strategies – to counter the terror threat and prevent radicalisation respectively – former GCHQ head David Omand told BuzzFeed News he expected these to get more resources and some new powers, though he said extreme steps should not be taken.

"The CONTEST strategic aim remains the right one: to reduce the risk (from terrorism) so that people can live their normal lives, freely (that is, without having to give up cherished freedoms and rights) and with confidence (trusting in the authorities to manage the risks, so that people are not in fear, tourists still come, there is inward investment, markets are not destabilised etc)," he said in an email.

"To achieve the goal means a long term determined national effort to reduce the risk through strategic programmes to pursue, prevent, protect and prepare.

"More effort on the Prevent programme is needed with adequate local resources to implement programmes such as the Channel mentoring of those at risk of being drawn into violence. This is safeguarding communities not victimising them.

"[We should take] another look at Control Orders [orders that could restrict the activities of terror suspects without any criminal conviction] … but stopping short of preventive detention or house arrest that could quickly become counter-productive with the risk of falling into a propaganda trap that would give oxygen to the extremists.

"Extreme-right provocations are likely and the authorities must be able to have the resources to tackle, and be seen to tackle, any such challenges vigorously."

6. Why were anti-traffic barriers only installed on the capital's bridges after the London Bridge attack?

New barriers on Westminster Bridge this morning separating pedestrians from vehicles

Long stretches of road where vehicles can build speed before hitting pedestrians are a major risk factor in increasing the deadliness of deliberate vehicle attacks, and something ISIS manuals train would-be recruits to look for – making bridges an obvious target.

Overnight on Sunday, heavy concrete barriers were placed between the road and pavements on three of London's busiest bridges – Westminster, Waterloo, and London bridges – helping to mitigate that risk in the future, but raising the question of whether those barriers could have been installed earlier, following the Westminster attack.

7. Will the findings of inquiries into the Manchester and London attacks be made public?

Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images

Speaking on Tuesday morning, foreign secretary Boris Johnson – who sits on the National Security Council and oversees MI6 and GCHQ – acknowledged that the public would want answers from MI5 and the Home Office.

"People are going to look at the front pages today," he told Sky News, "and they are going to say, 'How on earth could we have let this guy – or possibly more – through the net? What happened? How can he possibly be on a Channel 4 programme and then committing atrocities like this?' And that is a question that will need to be answered by MI5, by the police, as the investigation goes on."

The PM acknowledged on Wednesday that MI5 will conduct internal investigations into the attacks and whether it could have done more to prevent them, while Rifkind told BuzzFeed News that when parliament's intelligence and security committee reconvenes after the election it is "highly likely" that it will do the same.

The internal intelligence reports, however, will not be made public, and the parliamentary committee is able to hold its hearings in private and can opt not to make its final report public – though it generally now chooses to make reports public in the case of high-profile attacks.

The decision on whether there will be any further independent inquiry will lie with whoever is home secretary – and whoever is prime minister – on Friday morning.

James Ball is a special correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London. PGP: here

Contact James Ball at

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