'The community is uniting': Regina-born counter-terrorism researcher reflects on deadly London attacks

Joana Cook works right on the Strand, a major thoroughfare in the centre of London where the attack left five people dead and around 50 other injured.

Joana Cook watched police, helicopters from her office near where the attack took place Wednesday

Londoners light candles during a vigil in Trafalgar Square for victims following the March 22 terror attack. (EPA)

A Regina woman who was in London during the deadly attack on Wednesday said although the incident was scary, it's important not to allow terrorist attacks "to start dividing society, breaking trust between populations and communities."

Joana Cook works right on the Strand, a major thoroughfare in the centre of London where the attack left five people dead and around 50 other injured. 

Cook's neighbourhood filled with the sounds and sights of emergency responders after a knife-wielding man went on a rampage, plowing a car into pedestrians on London's Westminster Bridge and stabbing a police officer to death inside the gates of Parliament.

Cook said it was nerve-wracking to watch police descend on the area but what stood out the most was watching the usually bustling streets and river empty. 

"It's bizarre seeing a city as busy as London shut down in the way that it was: when you don't see traffic crossing that bridge; when you don't see the boats going through the river; when everything kind of stops in a certain area," she said.
Joana Cook, who is from Regina, was working in the area the deadly attacks took place in London on Wednesday. (CBC)

Cook grew up in Regina and did her undergraduate degree in political science at the University of Regina. 

She moved to London more than four years ago to complete her PhD in the department of war studies at King's College London. Counter-terrorism in the U.K. is the focus of her thesis, so the attack made her research very real. 

British-born Khalid Masood, 52, was identified as the man behind the attack. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said he had been investigated by British intelligence "some years ago" in relation to "concerns of violent extremism."

On Friday, two more "significant" arrests were made, according to London's top counter-terror officer. Seven people were already in custody over the attack.

Cook maintains perspective on terrorist attacks

Cook said that while the attack was unsettling, she has been encouraged by the way people are coming together in the face of tragedy. 

"I think that's the thing that's incredibly encouraging when there is one single event by a single individual like this, that can really potentially fracture a community," she said. "But instead you see it going the opposite way, where the community is uniting to support each other in this moment in uncertainty and continued fear."

Thousands gathered during a candlelit vigil at Trafalgar Square in London on March 23, where a moment of silence was observed.

As someone who researches counter-terrorism, Cook said London's police generally have a good relationship with community members and have a pulse on what is happening. She is reassured by their vigilance and said, although there is a feeling of a larger threat risk right now, it can't stop people from experiencing and enjoying life in London. 

"Even in Regina I would be more likely to face violence in some other way than to be the victim of a terrorist attack," she said. 

"So, for me, it's always making sure that maintaining some kind of context and objectivity with understanding what the risk is.

"They [terrorist attacks] are scary; they have to be addressed by all means possible; we have to prepare for them, obviously, to the best of our abilities, but it's so important to keep it in context and not allow these things to start dividing society, breaking trust between populations and communities."

London is a city of more than eight million people and Cook said "it's a global city where every corner of the world comes to meet." The attack will not be able to shut that down, she added

"I don't think that Londoners will let that slide."