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Manchester’s Message About the Evolving Terrorist Threat


In contrast to the Westminster violence earlier this year and other recent lone wolf attacks, the Manchester bombing was highly sophisticated. This, and the unprecedented targeting of children, suggests Islamic State is changing its tactics.

As news emerges of British police hunting a terrorist network following the shocking Manchester attack at the Ariana Grande concert, Britain has raised its terror alert threat to ‘critical’. It means an attack is imminent and has prompted military deployment on UK streets. The overwhelming aspect of the bombing has been the senseless violence against children and, in this sense, the Manchester terror attack demonstrates how the threat from terrorism is changing character in line with the recent incidents throughout Europe.

New terror

As I argued after the Westminster attack in March, with the demise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we will most likely see more attacks in the West, most notably on European soil due to its proximity to the Middle East. This is the unfortunate paradox of eliminating a terror group’s hold on territory, as someone cynically noted in terms of cost-effectiveness, as a terror organisation it is much cheaper to carry out attacks than to hold territory. However, unlike the many unsophisticated attacks of late in Europe, the horror at the Ariana Grande concert indicates the sophistication of a coordinated attack with some degree of direction from Islamic State (or another terror group).

Details are still emerging, but we know that nine people have been arrested so far and the UK police and security services have now publicly announced that they are on the hunt for a network of terrorists. Terror experts privy to the details so far have confirmed that the bomb used in the attack featured a sophisticated design similar to the bombs used in the Brussels attacks in 2016. The US network ABC News has reported that the device was “hooked to a powerful battery and featured a remote, cell-phone detonator with built-in redundancies to ensure blast even if a first attempt failed”. This illustrates the high-level planning behind this terror plot.

Since September 11, there has been an overall increased perception of the danger posed by terrorism, but the number of deaths caused by terrorism in the West is lower than it was in the era of earlier terror groups such as IRA and ETA. However, considering the senseless targeting of innocent children and teenagers attending a concert, this generation of Islamic State-inspired and -associated terrorists is clearly more radical in the use of violence than even al-Qaeda, and there is often no rational political agenda. This poses a particular challenge for counter-terrorism officials.

Terrorism experts have also commented on the discrepancy between the information coming from the UK police since the Manchester attack and the statements provided by Islamic State propaganda outlets: Islamic State has said it was not a suicide attack, for example.

Intelligence?

Some have suggested this represents an intelligence failure. While acknowledging the scale of the threat in the UK, some valid questions still arise: how could someone of Abedi’s age travel to Libya and then enter the UK without further vetting? On what basis did the security services ignore him when his family contacted officials to warn that he was a danger?

Yet the most notable intelligence failure may be outside the UK: information leaks from the US may have compromised the work of British intelligence and police at a sensitive point of the investigation.

Political implications

The Manchester atrocity has been followed by debate on the premeditated deliberations behind the attack. Early on, Wikileaks was heavily criticised for suggesting that Islamic State wanted the British to vote for Theresa May. One should not forget that Islamic State’s goal is to polarise and undermine democratic societies. The Brexit environment has already been characterised by polarisation within the UK. After Westminster, some alleged Theresa May was ‘weaponising’ the attack in order to strike a favourable trade deal with the EU.

Undermining social cohesion and multiculturalism is a key tenet of Islamic State’s overall strategy. In this sense, attacking children—the most vulnerable in the population—will shock society, with the intention of undermining people’s trust in those meant to protect. Therefore it is important to remember that, as the people Manchester are hurting, so is MI5 and those meant to protect the UK. The UK has some of the most capable security services in the world and they are now working around the clock to prevent any further attacks.

The heartfelt local resilience that Manchester has demonstrated so far must extend to the UK as a whole, no matter who is elected on 8 June. Given the unstable political climate in the UK, the fact that the Manchester attack has not been politicised so far and political campaigning has been suspended is a promising sign.

Anne-Marie Balbi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Social Sciences and Security Studies at Curtin University.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.

Published May 24, 2017

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