London Attack Reminds May of Post-Brexit Security Ties Need

  • U.K. shouldn’t lose intelligence sharing with EU, experts say
  • British-born attacker known to M15 spies some years ago

U.K.'s May Says 'We Are Not Afraid' After Terror Attack

The tragedy unleashed at the heart of Britain’s seat of power gave Prime Minister Theresa May a sharp reminder of the security threat she shares with the European allies she’s about to divorce.

The worst terror attack on British soil since 2005 took place a year to the day after the deadly bombings on Brussels, and exactly one week before May’s government triggers Brexit. The unnamed British-born attacker was investigated by the British intelligence service MI5 some years ago but he wasn’t part of the current “intelligence picture,” May told lawmakers on Thursday.

Expressions of solidarity and offers of help flooded in from the European Union governments May will be engaging in complex and probably acrimonious negotiations on how to decouple after more than 40 years together.

But for the woman who until eight months ago was in charge of keeping the country safe, the incident serves as a powerful argument to conserve a key aspect of EU cooperation in light of the interdependence of security services and terror plots across European capitals, from Paris to Berlin.

“In the year since the Brussels attacks, the threat level in the EU has only risen,” the Soufan Group said in a statement earlier Wednesday.

Many foreign fighters from the EU have traveled to Iraq and Syria and an unknown number have returned. That means “the challenge facing European security and intelligence services is enormous,” according to the private consultancy.

Read about how the London Attack Unfolded at the Heart of Westminster

On Tuesday, it joined the U.S. in banning electronic devices on flights from six Middle Eastern countries. The reason given was that terror groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda could hide a bomb in things like a laptop.

French presidential frontrunner Emmanuel Macron made the case for increased defense and intelligence cooperation with both the U.K. and Germany in the wake of the attacks. Speaking on Thursday, he advocated “much increased cooperation on intelligence sharing.”

Senior security officials and police have stressed to lawmakers that the U.K.’s ability to share intelligence must not be hampered by the Brexit process.

‘Five Eyes’

The U.K. does have intelligence sharing agreements with country’s outside of the EU including “Five Eyes” an alliance that comprises the U.S, Australia, Canada and New Zealand that could act as a template for any future agreements with European countries.

“Britain boasts an impressive security and intelligence apparatus and one that others actively want to share information with,” said Brian Painter, managing director of security and risk specialist Discreet Help. “I don’t think Brexit will have any effect on this.”

The U.K. is a member of Europol, which helps police crime across borders, and is a signatory to the European Arrest Warrant system in which EU members transfer people sought by another. EU countries also share data on air passengers and information on suspects.

Before the London attack, both the Center for European Reform and former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg issued warnings.

‘Cut Off’

The CER said Britain can’t be a member of the European Arrest Warrant if not a member of the EU, while Clegg said the EU will only share data under certain safeguards. He said that failure to secure a transitional deal would see the U.K. tumble out of the existing justice and home-affairs measures in early 2019.

“The police would find their access to European databases cut off, and would no longer be able to use the Schengen Information System to quickly check the identity of suspects or their vehicles, or to pass on the details of missing persons,” Clegg said in December.

Home Secretary Amber Rudd said earlier this month that it was a “priority” for the U.K. to keep the warrant. The government’s white paper on Brexit said it plans to “continue our deep cooperation with the EU and its member states” on security and terrorism.

Walk Away?

Still, EU officials are urging the bloc to prepare for the U.K. to walk away from Brexit talks without a deal on any form of cooperation.

May addressed the nation Thursday to say the terrorist threat would stay unchanged at its second highest level since August 2014. Until now, the country had managed to stave off the mass-casualty attacks seen in the past two years in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and Nice.

But privately, security officials have said for some time that it was matter of when, not if, a terrorist attack would happen on British soil. British authorities have thwarted 13 attacks over the past four years, police said. Over an 18-month period in 2015-16 they were also arresting people on suspected terror charges at an average rate of one a day.

Merkel’s Solidarity

Tensions over Brexit negotiations were put to one side in the aftermath of the attack as European leaders made statements of solidarity and condolences.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while the causes of the London incident remained unclear, “for Germany and its citizens, in the fight against terrorism in all its forms, we stand solidly and resolutely by Great Britain’s side.”

And as news emerged that three French students were among those injured, Interior Minister Matthias Fekl said that France too stood ready to help “a beacon of democracy.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, noting the sympathy and solidarity sent by the U.K. after the attacks in Brussels a year ago, said the commission “can only send that sympathy back twofold.”

The U.K. “will always remain a partner and a friend and one we will continue to work hand in hand with in the fight against against terror,” he said.

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue, Mark Deen, Helene Fouquet, and Cam Simpson

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