The Manchester Bombing and British Counterterrorism

COMMENTARY Terrorism

The Manchester Bombing and British Counterterrorism

May 26th, 2017 5 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Robin Simcox

Margaret Thatcher Fellow

Robin Simcox specializes in terrorism and national security analysis as the Margaret Thatcher Fellow.
Familiar Patterns, Fresh Consequences Maxppp/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed its second attack in the United Kingdomin three months. This week’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in the northwestern city of Manchester had, at the time of this writing, taken 22 lives and left dozens of people injured. The perpetrator was Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British citizen of Libyan descent. 

This was the worst terrorist attack the country had suffered since al Qaeda struck the London transport network on July 7, 2005, and the British government has raised its terrorist threat level to “critical,” meaning that another attack could occur imminently. Elements of the Manchester attack are unusual. For example, Libyan involvement in Islamist attacks in the United Kingdom is very rare. According to recent research from the Henry Jackson Society (previous editions to which I contributed), only one percent of those involved in Islamism-related offenses in the United Kingdom were of Libyan ancestry.

Other elements, however, are very familiar. That Abedi was a homegrown terrorist is unsurprising. In the United Kingdom, almost three-quarters of individuals who have committed Islamism-related offenses are British. Abedi was the child of Libyan refugees, a reminder that the challenges posed by refugees in Europe are not confined to the first generation. Abedi’s father is reportedly a member of the Islamist group the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, as a former Libyan security official told the Associated Press.

 

It is also not surprising that a music venue was the target. British authorities disrupted a 2004 plot in which al Qaeda­–trained terrorists discussed an attack on a nightclub. Outlining the reason for targeting a nightclub, one of the plotters was secretly recorded saying that “no one can even turn around and say: ‘Oh, they were innocent, all those slags dancing around.’” Three years later, car bombs were left outside a nightclub in central London at the prompting of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor group to ISIS). These bombs did not detonate, but the idea stuck around. In 2011, a cell that had trained in Pakistan and was plotting suicide attacks in the United Kingdom was secretly recorded asking, “They wanna club, act like animals, and why shouldn’t we terrorize them, tell me that?” Abedi’s mindset must have been similarly twisted.

As a major city in a country that terrorists have consistently focused on attacking, Manchester has been a target before. In April 2009, one of al Qaeda’s most significant plots in Europe over the past decade was disrupted there. A car bomb was set to explode outside a Manchester shopping mall, with a string of suicide bombers awaiting those fleeing the initial blast. This scheme, which led to the conviction of cell ringleader Abid Naseer in a U.S. court, was directly tied to Osama bin Laden.

As with other sophisticated plots faced by the United Kingdom, these were not the actions of a lone wolf. U.S. officials have described Abedi’s bomb as “sophisticated” and Police Chief Constable Ian Hopkins stated, “It is very clear that this is a network we are investigating.” Abedi’s father and brother have already been arrested in Tripoli, and eight others have been apprehended across the United Kingdom. Further suggesting foreign involvement in the plot, Abedi had recently returned to his country after a three-month trip to Libya. He had also possibly journeyed to Syria to receive training before that. U.S. officials also believe that Abedi had connections to al Qaeda. 

The United Kingdom will undoubtedly have some policy response to events in Manchester. And there are certainly areas in which it needs to make headway, especially with respect to confronting the theological roots of terrorism. Yet it is worth remembering that when it comes to intelligence policy, the country already treats security issues very seriously. It has committed extra funds in an effort to boost its intelligence capacity. The police and the domestic, foreign, and signals intelligence agencies work together quite harmoniously. The government has even been willing to carry out drone strikes against its own citizens abroad, killing Reyaad Khan in August 2015 for planning a series of attacks on the United Kingdom from Raqqa. 

In all likelihood, then, the main implications will be political. British voters go to the polls next month, and it is uncertain which way the public mood will swing, but it should favor the Conservatives and Prime Minister Theresa May. The prime minister was a long-standing Home Secretary known to take security seriously, whereas Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn is notoriously equivocal on terrorism. Indeed, his support for the IRA—which leveled part of Manchester with a truck bomb in 1996, injuring more than 200—may now be brought into even sharper focus.

It is also important to look beyond the immediate political ramifications of the latest Manchester attack. In a recent survey for the Chatham House think tank, 10,000 people were polled across ten different countries in Europe. In eight out of the ten countries, a majority agreed that “all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” The United Kingdom was one of the two that did not. That was a good thing. Yet the number of times that a refugee’s son can massacre schoolchildren without public opinion shifting is probably finite. If it does, then not only will the United Kingdom inevitably become less welcoming to Muslims from abroad: relations between Britain’s existing Muslim communities and the rest of the country will surely be damaged.

This piece originally appeared in Foreign Affairs