7 questions about the London terror attacks

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “United States of Jihad: Investigating America’s Homegrown Terrorists.”

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Peter Bergen says it's urgent to find out who was responsible and to think intelligently about how to prevent further attacks

CNN  — 

The first question after the deadly London terror attacks Saturday is, of course: Who is responsible? British police have killed three suspects, but as yet there is no credible claim of responsibility for the attacks.

The vast majority of attacks and plots in the West in the past three years have been directed or inspired by ISIS.

That doesn’t entirely preclude an al Qaeda-inspired plot. Three weeks ago Hamza bin Laden, one of Osama bin Laden’s sons who has been playing a more prominent role in al Qaeda of late, issued a call for attacks on Westerners saying, “If you are able to pick up a firearm, well and good; if not, the options are many.”

But, al Qaeda has not shown much ability to inspire or direct attacks in the West in recent years.

Police officers on Borough High Street as police are dealing with an incident on London Bridge in London, Saturday, June 3, 2017.    Witnesses reported a vehicle hitting pedestrians and injured people on the ground. (Dominic Lipinski/PA via AP)
London terror attacks: How they unfolded
01:31 - Source: CNN

Second, if indeed it was an ISIS-related attack, was this ISIS-inspired, like the attack last year at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, by US citizen Omar Mateen in which he killed 49 people?

Or was it an ISIS-enabled operation, as was the unsuccessful attempt in 2015 to attack a Prophet Mohammad cartoon contest in Garland, Texas? The two American terrorists in that attack were in encrypted communication with an ISIS militant in the Middle East who directed their efforts.

Or was it an operation in which ISIS had trained the terrorists, like the case of the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130?

The low-tech nature of the London attacks on Saturday, in which the terrorists used a vehicle as a weapon and also wielded large knives, suggests it was ISIS-inspired rather than an attack in which ISIS had trained the perpetrators.

Third, how large is the conspiracy? From what we know so far there were three suspects involved. Were they part of a larger network or were they a self-contained cell?

Fourth, did the Muslim holy month of Ramadan play some role in sparking the London attacks? As I noted on Wednesday, the Ramadan period that began just over a week ago, could see a surge in terrorist attacks, including in the West, because ISIS has specifically called for such attacks during this Ramadan and the group has, unfortunately, had a track record of inspiring such attacks.

Last year, for instance, ISIS called for attacks during Ramadan and one of those who answered that call was Omar Mateen who pledged allegiance to ISIS as he carried out the most lethal terrorist attack in the United States since 9/11 at the Orlando nightclub almost exactly a year ago.

Fifth, once the suspects are identified in the London attacks will they be known in some way to law enforcement? That is quite often the case. For instance, the suicide bomber who struck two weeks ago at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester in northern England killing 22 was known to the British security services.

Police officers and members of the emergency services attend to a person injured in an apparent terror attack on London Bridge in central London on June 3, 2017.
Armed police fired shots after reports of stabbings and a van hitting pedestrians on London Bridge on Saturday in an incident reminiscent of a terror attack in March just days ahead of a general election. / AFP PHOTO / DANIEL SORABJI        (Photo credit should read DANIEL SORABJI/AFP/Getty Images)
Witness describes taking shelter during attack
02:53 - Source: CNN

So too was the terrorist who rammed his car into pedestrians walking across London’s Westminster bridge in March, killing 4.

Which raises the sixth question: After the third significant terrorist attack in three months in the United Kingdom, what will the political fallout be on the British general election to be held on Thursday, in particular if British voters feel that the government has failed in its primary duty to keep them safe?

Typically terrorist attacks produce a rally-around-the flag effect as was the case after 9/11 and the huge outpouring of public support that then-President George W. Bush garnered.

But in this case the British public may be concerned that there is an ongoing campaign of terror which their government has not adequately prevented. Will there be a political backlash against British Prime Minister Theresa May, whose ruling Conservative Party is traditionally seen as “stronger” on terrorism than its main rival, the Labour Party?

You only have to recall the terrorist attacks in Madrid, Spain, in 2004 – in which 191 were killed only three days before the Spanish election – to understand that an attack very late in an electoral cycle can have unexpected consequences. The sitting prime minister, Jose Aznar, who had strongly backed the US-led Iraq War, was unseated by a challenger who then pulled Spanish troops out of Iraq. The Madrid terrorist attacks are generally regarded as being the key to why Aznar, who had been leading in the polls, was defeated.

Seventh: What to do? President Donald Trump tweeted shortly after the London attacks that his administration’s proposed temporary travel ban aimed at six Muslim-majority countries should be instituted.

Right now, of course, that proposed ban is being held up in the courts. But the travel ban is a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. The perpetrators of these terrorist attacks in the West are largely second-generation homegrown terrorists, not recent immigrants or refugees.

The hard reality is that attacks by vehicles in public places are very hard to defend against in a free and open society.

The best defense against such attacks is good intelligence, and that often comes from inside the Muslim community. To gather that intelligence requires not alienating Muslims but encouraging them to flag to authorities those they see who are radicalizing or seem to be preparing some kind of an attack.

Correction: This piece originally said “After the third significant attack in four months…” It has been corrected to three months.