LONDON — Theresa May might be able to remain as Britain’s prime minister despite an election that weakened her power base, but there are mounting concerns about her counterterrorism strategy, which appear to have been among the reasons Conservatives lost a stunning number of seats Thursday.
In addition to criticism about her willingness to disregard certain European human rights laws if necessary, perhaps even more troubling, critics say, is that May’s plans differ little from measures that are already in place.
“There is a general sense in the intelligence community that agencies already have an awful lot of legislation at hand,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director for International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “A lot of the things mentioned during this election campaign are hardly new or innovative.”
The underlying question is whether any legislation or strategy could significantly increase safety in a country whose intelligence and police agencies have long been considered some of Europe’s most advanced when it comes to preventing terrorist attacks. Expansive laws already enable law enforcement officers to go after suspects in ways unimaginable in most other countries across the continent.
Yet no E.U. nation has suffered through more attacks this year than Britain, prompting an uncomfortable question: Are the low-tech and high-impact attacks of the last three months simply unavoidable in a liberal democracy that is unwilling and unable to implement even tougher measures?
Amid a tumultuous election campaign in which the prime minister repeatedly tried to regain the initiative and which was interrupted by two terrorist attacks, it was an uncomfortable question May sought to avoid. At least rhetorically, she has promised a tougher approach and pledged to test the limits of counterterrorism legislation. Speaking to the Sun tabloid newspaper Wednesday, May said that “if human rights laws get in the way” of protecting Britain, she would change those laws.
But experts wonder to what extent the tough human rights rhetoric will be matched by action, especially given that her Conservative Party failed to reach a parliamentary majority in Thursday’s general elections.
“It’s a populist applause line that goes down well at party conferences,” said Frank Foley, a war-studies professor at King’s College in London. “But we’ve heard it before, and it’s not clear that she will have sufficient support to make good on the promise.”
In a statement Sunday, the prime minister referred to the possibility of increasing the length of custodial sentences for terrorism-related offenses and implementing curfews on suspects more frequently. But similar efforts in nations such as France, where suspects can theoretically be kept under arrest for years before the start of their trials, have had little impact.
May’s strategy also focuses on combating extremist ideology and militant groups abroad, as well as on limiting terrorists’ use of the Internet or expanding online surveillance.
“Those ideas aren’t new,” Foley said. Britain has sought to counter extremist ideology for years by funding counter-messaging initiatives, and more recently by arresting leading hate preachers.
“Theresa May has talked about a tougher counter-extremism strategy since at least 2014, but she should be careful about cracking down on nonviolent extremists,” Foley said. “It’s a strategy the French have tried with little success, as it has alienated communities and led to a situation in which community members are often unwilling to share crucial information with authorities.”
Counterterrorism analysts also questioned the efficacy of May’s focus on the Internet.
“In the case of the most recent attacks in Britain, it wasn’t about the Internet. Many of those involved were radicalized through face-to-face interactions,” said Peter Neumann, director of the London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization.
The most impactful change laid out by May could be a reorganization of existing surveillance mechanisms. At least three of the five attackers who struck Britain over the last few months were known to the authorities or had been reported for possible terrorist ties. Intelligence agencies are unable to consistently monitor the 3,000 or so people in Britain who pose a potential terrorism threat, which has led to calls for a new priority list that would single out individuals particularly likely to be involved in plots.
Apart from that, an effective strategy would also have to be based on the acknowledgment of previous failings, experts say. May faces pressure to reverse sweeping police-staff cuts and to increase the number of armed officers on the streets — positions which were eliminated during her time as home secretary until last year.
Despite the uncertainty over whether May’s multilayered strategy could prove successful, there is consensus that there is no time to lose. Since the Westminster Bridge attack in March, there have been at least seven other major plots. Two of them could not be foiled.