Now Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and counterterrorism police units, whose capacity is already severely stretched from dealing with the Westminster terrorist attack just eight weeks ago, are likely to come under pressure as they face questions about why another apparently “known” extremist was not prevented from killing so many.
One explanation is the unprecedented recent surge in threats against Britain from Islamic State-inspired attacks. British authorities have actually been able to stop many such attempts; London’s Counter Terrorism Command at Scotland Yard successfully disrupted three separate terrorist plots (mostly involving knives) in the past four weeks, two within a 24-hour period. All of the would-be perpetrators, including four women, were subsequently charged with terrorist offenses. They had all been living in Britain for years; they were not foreign fighters returning from the collapsing “caliphate,” but known extremists inspired to act largely through access to radicalizing material on the Internet and social media contact with terrorists overseas. It appears that Salman Abedi, named as the suicide bomber responsible for the Manchester attack, may have had a similar profile, having been born and raised in the city to parents who originated from Libya.
The investigation into this attack will be led by the Manchester Counter Terrorism Unit. The unit was established after 7/7, when officials recognized that a lack of counterterrorism capability outside London might have contributed to poor intelligence on the 2005 attackers, most of whom lived in and around Leeds. Britain’s modern counterterrorism police network is now fully interoperable, with units embedded in all the major cities. Coordinated from London, police specialists from across Britain are now supplementing investigative resources being deployed from the Manchester unit. The police network has tested and exercised the response to an attack of this nature many times, and the investigation will undoubtedly be well-led and coordinated.
Counterterrorism professionals readily acknowledge, however, that the only meaningful performance measure is an absence of terrorist attacks. And Britain has now experienced two mass casualty attacks in its two largest cities in the past two months. In a rare public comment, Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, said Monday that his staff was “relentlessly focused” on fighting terrorism. In the aftermath of these attacks, he is likely to direct that the agency urgently reassess all “known” Britain-based extremists to see whether any merit more intrusive surveillance and covert operational activity. The raising of the threat level in Britain to “critical” by the Joint Terrorist Analysis Center confirms that MI5 is not ruling out further linked attacks by outstanding suspects.
The spike in terrorist plotting is likely to continue for months — even years — to come, despite military successes in Iraq and Syria. The harder it is for radicals to get from Britain to Islamic State-held land, the likelier it is they’ll try to strike in the West. The end of the “physical” caliphate may be near, but the “virtual” caliphate online will endure. The lesson from the Westminster and Manchester attacks is surely that mass-fatality terrorism does not need to be complex or particularly sophisticated, such as the attacks carried out in Paris in December 2015. Lone individuals can easily be inspired to kill many people with knives, cars and homemade bombs; British officials rarely have to worry about disrupting plots with guns, thanks to our strict firearms laws. The only way of preventing such attacks is by knowing the mind-set and intent of the extremists and then disrupting their planning, either through good intelligence and covert monitoring or by family or communities reporting their concerns to police.
Serious questions will now be asked across Britain about its Muslim communities and whether Muslim leaders and role models are saying and doing enough to counter the poisonous narratives emanating from Islamic terrorist groups. Despite the existence of a mature and well-developed national terrorism prevention strategy in Britain, hundreds of largely British-born nationals have left the country in the past four years to join the “caliphate,” and one has to ask what more needs to be done to prevent this particularly potent brand of Islamic extremism from flourishing.
The British government will be particularly concerned about a potential lack of community cohesion in the northwest of England after this attack, which is vulnerable to a backlash against Muslim minority communities. The region is less integrated than many other parts of Britain, and extremist right-wing groups have gained ground there, as evidenced by the terrorist murder of the British lawmaker Jo Cox by Thomas Mair last year.
While there is clearly no one solution to the ongoing threats across the world from Islamist terrorism, one has to hope that initiatives like the creation of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology, launched in Saudi Arabia this week, will make a difference. Bold steps such as this, particularly involving Muslim nations, could mean that fewer families will be scarred by terrorism in the future.
It is an unintended consequence, but the advent of social media has placed a turbo charge on extremism, providing a vehicle for extremist narratives to be propagated across the world and joining up like-minded proponents. There is much more to be done to combat these radicalizing influences. All countries now need comprehensive counterterrorism strategies that include mainstreaming steps to identify and deal with extremism in all its forms.