The threat of a terrorist incident occurring in Britain is officially rated as severe. This means that an incident is likely somewhere some time and everyone should be vigilant and prepared. But we should not get the threat out of proportion. An accident in the home or from traffic remains a bigger threat to life and limb.

The most horrific terrorist incidents in Europe recently have been in France, Belgium and Turkey. The greatest threat has been from Islamic extremists with a jihadist ideology who have been recruited by the Islamic State group and who seek “martyrdom” through suicide attacks. The number of incidents has seemed to increase as the territory controlled by IS has come under increasing pressure. There has also been a “copycat” element due in part perhaps to the media attention given to the details of the various incidents.

The weapons of choice have been guns and explosives, but these are much less readily available in European countries than in the United States. Britain has some of the most stringent gun laws and being an island is better able to stop the import of firearms. But explosives can be made in home laboratories and instruction manuals can be downloaded from the internet.

Instead of firearms, terrorists have taken to using knives and axes, which can be easily purchased. An ax was used on a train in Germany and knives in the horrific murder of a French priest celebrating mass in a French church in Rouen.

Not all such attacks and murders are, however, committed by terrorists. A right-wing extremist seems to have been responsible for the recent shopping mall murders in Munich. The recent murder in a London square of an American visitor appears to have been the work of a mentally deranged young man of Somali origin.

The recent massacre of people watching the July 14 celebrations on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice was carried out by a truck driven deliberately into crowds by a driver inspired by jihadist motives. This was the most frightening incident since the shootings and bombing in Paris. The use of an ordinary vehicle as a murder weapon, although not a new method, is disturbing as it is difficult to foresee and prevent such incidents.

Terrorists are constantly looking for new ways of threatening us. Servicemen on duty are obvious but difficult targets. Instead off-duty servicemen may be murdered as happened in the case of a British soldier returning to barracks in London. There have also been reports of possible attempts to kidnap a serviceman near his base.

The British security authorities have been training to respond quickly to a rampage by gunmen on the lines of the attacks in Mumbai or Paris and armed police patrols have been organized. But the British tradition has been one of policing by consent and British police have not generally carried firearms.

It is impossible to provide armed guards for every important building and shopping center let alone every shop, public place or place of worship. Terrorists may be hindered by security checks but they are unlikely to deter psychopaths. It is not possible to guarantee total security all the time and everywhere.

Good intelligence is the key factor in anticipating and dealing with potential threats. The police and the security services face multiple demands and difficulties. Intra-European cooperation between intelligence organizations is vital and Brexit must not be allowed to disrupt this.

The internet is a huge source of intelligence, but the task of sifting and interpreting information on the net consumes vast resources and time, and the results may be minimal. Telephones can only be tapped in Britain if properly authorized by warrant. The British government would like to strengthen their ability to monitor communications, but this is a highly sensitive area and further measures await parliamentary approval.

While it is illegal to go to Syria to join the extremists and returnees can be prosecuted it is impossible for the authorities to follow every possible suspect. Around the clock surveillance of a single individual involves a whole cohort of men and women, and can only be undertaken if there is sufficient basis for suspicion. Allocation of resources for surveillance involves skilled judgment. When a suspect falls through the net or is not thought to justify further attention, but is later involved in an incident, the authorities are inevitably but sometimes unreasonably criticized.

In France and Belgium, the security authorities have been criticized for alleged lapses in intelligence and inadequate countermeasures despite the state of emergency that has allowed extraordinary steps to be taken to deal with potential terrorists. Nicholas Sarkozy, a former French president and likely future presidential candidate, in a gesture toward the right wing, is reported to have called for a French equivalent to the U.S. Guantanamo Bay prison. Such extreme measures are not justified and only play into the hands of the extremists.

All incidents must of course be reported by the media and culprits identified, but as the French media now seem to recognize the jihadists seek publicity and notoriety, which they see as contributing to their cause. It is important that terrorists should not be allowed to claim martyrdom, but shown for what they are, namely ruthless murderers whose crimes can never be condoned.

What can we as individuals do to protect ourselves against possible terrorist incidents? The answer is not very much except exercise constant vigilance, report any suspicious activities and avoid places that are too crowded. If an incident occurs, get away as fast as possible and seek shelter. Don’t panic, although this is of course easier said than done.

We must continue to maintain our normal lives and bear in mind that despite recent incidents Western Europe is still a relatively safe place for travel and tourism.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.

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