Enough is enough,” said British Prime Minister Theresa May in the wake of Saturday’s terrorist attack in London. But her fighting words only serve to mask the fact that there is no simple way to put a full stop to the wave of jihadist violence that has hit Europe since it went to war with the Islamic State. May, like other politicians before her, lamented the fact that there was “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”. In the London case, though, there is evidence that the key perpetrator, who moved to the UK from Pakistan with his parents and his child, was far from tolerated. Members of the community not only expelled the alleged attacker from the local Ahlulistiqamah mosque for his political views, but his friends reported him to the police because of his pro-Islamic State views. “I did my bit, I know a lot of other people did their bit, but the authorities did not do their bit,” one of those who reported the perpetrator to the police told the BBC.
From the point of view of the authorities, it’s hard to know just what to do in these cases. The perpetrator, father of a toddler, made no secret of his pro-Islamic State views, even appearing in a documentary last week. However, he engaged in no behaviour that would have justified placing him — as opposed to several other high-risk suspects — under expensive, human resource-intensive surveillance. If mere expressions of support to jihadists are to be made illegal, it will hinder, rather than help authorities, driving potential supporters underground. Even attempting to shut off all access to jihadist websites and messaging will do little to staunch the flow of jihadist ideas, because of easily available technology most teenagers can demonstrate to their parents.
The simple truth is that the expensive investments in policing made incrementally after 9/11 have approached their limits. In London, after all, the attackers were shot in just eight minutes; plot after plot has been preempted. There is, however, no means of identifying those vulnerable to a toxic ideology — nor a quick-fix tool to catch all those willing to kill for it. The Islamic State’s toxic ideology will continue to appeal to the nihilistic urges of some Muslim youth until it is decisively defeated. Until then, societies must hold fast to their democratic values, instead of surrendering them to demagogues.