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Terror United

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Terror United

As indications emerge that the Manchester bomber had assistance, attention turns to embedded terror networks. May 24, 2017
Public safety

This much is now known about the Manchester arena suicide bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack in Great Britain since 2005. The perpetrator of the attack that killed 22 people, including children as young as eight, and wounded 59 others, was Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British citizen born in Manchester, a seemingly unremarkable university student of business and management whose parents had emigrated from Libya.

This “homegrown” terrorist, born and raised in the U.K., lived in his parent’s house just 3.5 miles from the arena where he detonated what Prime Minister Theresa May called his large, powerful “improvised” bomb. He exploded the device not inside the arena but in a public concourse near its ticket office, a space connecting to the Victoria rail station. The bomb was filled with nails, metal filings of some kind, and other shrapnel to maximize its lethality. Abedi detonated his weapon at 10:30 p.m., just as Ariana Grande, the American pop icon beloved by teenage American and British girls alike, had finished her performance and as many of the 20,000 fans were starting to leave the arena and enter the concourse.

At a press conference, Ian Hopkins, the Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police, declined to provide further details about Abedi, whose ID was found at the scene of his crime, but whose remains the coroner had yet officially to identify.

He also refused to comment on whether the police believe the attack was directed or inspired by the Islamic State, a faction of which claimed responsibility for it. “The priority remains to establish whether he was acting alone or as part of a network,” Hopkins said. The distinction is vital: if Abedi were part of a network, his accomplices could be planning other strikes in England or elsewhere. If he were acting alone, the immediate threat would have died with him.

The theory that Abedi acted on his own was undermined both by the apparent sophistication of the bomb, which one analyst said may have been a hydrogen peroxide-fueled device that was “command detonated,” that is, detonated by a third party and not by him, and also by raids of the homes of three of Abedi’s relatives and known associates. May warned Tuesday night that another attack “may be imminent.” That concern prompted her to raise the nation’s threat level from “severe” to “critical,” the highest possible British rating. She also deployed 5,000 British soldiers to guard sports centers, arenas, and major public venues normally guarded by police. May called her action a “proportionate and sensible response to the threat that our security experts judge we face.”

Whether Abedi was part of an organized terror cell or network or received direct training from a jihadi group—and law enforcement is studying a recent trip he took to politically chaotic Libya, and possibly from there to Syria—several counterterrorism experts said that they doubted that he had acted alone. Some objected even more strongly to the use of the term “lone wolf,” or even “homegrown” to describe him. “Lone wolf and homegrown do not mean you’re less lethal,” said a veteran intelligence official and former law-enforcement expert, who spoke on condition that he not be identified. “These guys are almost never alone. Accompanying them, motivating them, is the ideology of global jihad,” he said.

Calling Abedi a “lone wolf,” or even a “known wolf,” as some terrorism analysts call a terrorist whom police were once monitoring but let slip through the surveillance cracks, “trivializes” the relationship between the attacker and the ideology. “I no longer even talk about ISIS and al Qaeda,” the official added, “because it gets you focused on the organization rather than ideology. Groups come and go,” he said. “It’s the ideology that is deadly.”

Several analysts agreed that as military pressure on the self-declared Islamic caliphate increases, hundreds, if not thousands more of the 7,000 British or European citizens estimated to have traveled to Iraq or Syria to fight alongside jihadi groups were returning home. As a result, terrorist strikes in the West are also likely to increase.

While many analysts were outraged by Abedi’s choice of a concert venue with preteens and teenagers as his victims, the selection of such “soft targets,” especially symbols of Western culture, has become a veritable hallmark of this generation of terrorists. “Kids killing other kids” is now a trademark of global jihad—be it the June 2016 attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida by a security guard who had sworn allegiance to ISIS, killing 49 and wounding 53, or the Bataclan rock concert attack in Paris in November 2015, in which 90 died.

Immediately following the Manchester attack, British police and intelligence analysts began checking lists of some 850 U.K. citizens of Muslim origin who have gone to join the “jihad” in Iraq and Syria, hundreds of whom have already returned to Britain. Though a large number, there are fewer veteran returnees in Britain than in France, Germany, and other European countries. But the U.K. has ten times the number of suspected jihadi sympathizers as the United States.

The FBI’s office in London has also been assisting the British in their investigation, law-enforcement officials said. And in New York, the NYPD deployed extra resources—more cops conducting more surveillance and bag checks, more bomb-sniffing dogs—to help secure public venues, transportation hubs, and the city’s many iconic buildings and sites.

Jonathan Friedlander, the director of security risk management at Kroll Associates, which has helped provide security for religious organizations, concert venues, and at iconic sites, said that whether or not there was an explicit new threat to American venues, stepping up security after such a deadly strike anywhere in the West was sensible. Of greatest concern, he said, was that an individual was able to “construct and transport such a lethal device into a crowded area, whether public, private, or semi-private.” Law-enforcement officials, he said, would focus now on determining the nature of the bomber’s device to assess “emerging trends in weapons lethality.”

While much remains unclear, officials now fear that because radical Islam has been losing literal and political ground in Syria and Iraq, terrorists and the recruits they direct may increase attacks in European and American cities, if they are capable of doing so. Speaking in Bethlehem just two days after he called upon Saudis and other Sunni Arabs to “drive out” extreme Islamic elements from their mosques and their countries and to join the Washington-led coalition to defeat this ideology, President Trump condemned the Manchester attack in his own unique way. Abedi and those like him were not “monsters,” he said, refusing to dignify them by calling them that. They were “evil losers” whom the United States and its newfound Sunni Muslim allies in the fight against terror would eradicate. An Israeli who closely followed Trump’s visit to Jerusalem, having flown directly to Israel from Saudi Arabia, remained skeptical of the possibility of suppressing an ideology that has so widely metastasized. Much would depend on whether the anti-terror coalition would act on its pledges. There is a saying in Arabic, she noted: “There are no taxes on words.”  

Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images

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