MANCHESTER, England — For Britain’s security agencies, London always seemed like the likely target. For years, the capital of 8 million, with hundreds of thousands of weekly tourists and dozens of transit hubs, had prepared for and feared a major terror attack.
But then, on Monday night, a suicide bomber struck an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, about 200 miles north of the capital. With at least 22 fatalities and dozens more injured, it is the worst suspected suicide attack in Britain since the 2005 tube and bus bombings in London.
Was Manchester — and for that matter the rest of the country outside the capital — unprepared?
That is what critics inside and outside the British security apparatus have long argued. They say that too much emphasis has been put on protecting London, and too little on keeping safe other major cities such as Manchester with its roughly 500,000 inhabitants.
Security services say they have foiled 13 major terror plots between 2013 and March this year. But despite recent efforts to regionalize and decentralize counter-terrorism operations, much of the country’s security apparatus remains focused on London, where special units are on standby 24/7 and authorities can rely on extensive video surveillance to quickly react. Prestige projects, such as an expansive security system designed to protect London’s financial district, have largely not been replicated in other major cities.
Elsewhere in Britain, police federations have frequently complained about a lack of resources and about their concerns over possible attacks not being taken seriously.
Contrary to many other Western nations, most British police officers across the country do not carry firearms. The long-held tradition has recently come under mounting criticism amid a continuously high terror threat, and more officers are now being trained at using weapons. But especially in more sparsely populated areas, police federations have argued that training efforts are proceeding too slowly and that the few armed officers available would likely arrive at the scene of an attack too late.
Others say that armed officers alone would hardly stop militants from using explosives and that the problems are much more deeply rooted. Britain’s counter-radicalization program, Prevent, has frustrated many in cities such as Manchester in the past by focusing on what critics say amounts to a monitoring and surveillance of Muslims.
The program aims to identify young people who might be prone to radicalization, and to provide them with counseling and social support.
“But one main problem was always that the program was initiated and led by the police,” Peter Neumann, the director of London’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, said in an interview conducted prior to the attack. “Among many Muslims, that created the perception that they were not treated as normal citizens, but rather as security threats.”
In some cities, the flaws of governmental counter-radicalization programs have been more obvious than in others, and in some cases the criticism has also come from the authorities themselves.
In 2015, the chief constable of Greater Manchester police, Sir Peter Fahy, harshly criticized plans by then-Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May that included the shutdown of mosques or a funding stop for charities accused of collaborating with possible extremists.
Voicing his opposition to the plans at the time, Fahy said: “It draws the police in[to] areas the public will be uncomfortable with if they feel that it erodes free speech or religious freedom or the right to protest. At what point do you erode the British values you are trying to protect. Such as live and let live, and freedom of speech.”
In the same interview, Fahy also confirmed that his Manchester force would be hit by severe staff cuts — something police federations had warned would hinder police forces’ ability to respond to attacks and other incidents in the future.