Every terrorist attack is shocking in its own way. If the massacre of twenty-two people emerging from a pop concert in Manchester late on Monday evening has a particular horror, it is surely because of these very ingredients. Teenage joy, togetherness, and music – life itself in its most concentrated form – being cut down in an instant by the deluded agent of a murder-cult is an act of inhumanity to wrench heart and mind alike.
The impact is indeed profound and personal, in Manchester and well beyond. The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, or JTAC, raised the official threat level late on Tuesday from “severe” to “critical,” the highest category, for the first time since June 2007. Islamic State had been quick to claim that a “soldier of the caliphate” was responsible, and a degree of affinity is looking more plausible now that JTAC, an integrated security agency under the aegis of MI5, considers that another attack is quite possibly imminent. This, along with the implementation of “Operation Tempura” – involving an increased quasi-military presence on the streets of cities other than notionally well-protected London – has become the main focus of high-level discussion.
The 2007 decision was made following narrowly aborted car-bombings at Glasgow airport and two sites near London’s Trafalgar Square. In the latter case, the proximity of one of the cars to a nightclub – another symbol of what self-styled jihadis regard as decadent Western lifestyles – hinted at its target. This would also connect it to Manchester, where children were among the dead and wounded.
The international revulsion the incident has provoked – with messages of condolence and defiance from world leaders, including Malcolm Turnbull, prominently reported in Britain – matches its extremity. So does the political class’s decision to suspend campaigning for the election on 8 June, probably until or after the weekend. In an instant, a single event becomes at once local, national and global.
Such reactions may also owe something to the ability of 24/7 media, including broadcasting and social media, to amplify the intrinsic savagery of the crime and sustain its immediacy. So what happened at Manchester Arena also becomes no longer just bounded but rolling. The ensuing loop further entrenches its distinct status in the public mind, while making it part of wider, radiating stories: principally of terrorism on British soil and of the transnational struggle against Islamic State.
The former theme has a distinctly local connection. A huge bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, on a Saturday morning in June 1996 exploded in Manchester’s central shopping district. With 1500 kilograms of homemade explosive, it was the biggest ever used by the IRA in its dozens of attacks. By a near miracle, no one was killed, although 290 were injured and much of the city’s commercial heart, including the neo-brutalist and unloved Arndale Centre, was destroyed. The serendipity stretched even Mancunians’ famously black humour to the limit. Demolishing the Arndale was joined to an ambitious regeneration; for the industrial revolution’s furnace, a ruthless act ended as a cathartic jolt towards the millennium.
This cradle of free trade and radicalism (and of the Guardian newspaper) knew violence long before. Cavalry cut down perhaps fifteen protesters for reform at St Peter’s Field in 1819, the “Peterloo massacre” entering liberty’s annals in an act of what many would call state terrorism, whose bicentenary is now eagerly being planned. Three Fenians, in this aspect foreshadowing the IRA, fired at a prison van holding a comrade in 1867. The release attempt killed a police sergeant, but earned the accused the renown of “Manchester martyrs” after their hanging in nearby Salford.
Most locally relevant to the Manchester Arena atrocity, though, is an aborted plot in 2009 by twelve quasi-students from Pakistan to mount multiple suicide bombings in the city on behalf of al Qaeda. Police closed in as the operations seemed imminent. The trial ended messily: eleven were found not guilty on a technicality and deported to Pakistan, but the ringleader, Abid Naseer, was extradited to the United States in 2013, where two years later he was convicted of planning a rampage-style multiple assault on Manchester and New York.
Here, the local and the national begin to merge, because that plan was but one of many since 9/11 to have been prevented by advance intelligence or luck. A number, brought to a conclusion, might have inflicted severe casualties, the largest of them on the level of Bali in 2002, for example, or Paris’s Bataclan in 2015. So powerful, if natural, is the lens of retrospective inevitability – not least in an unprecedented era of media onrush – that it is worth at least registering these “futures that didn’t happen”; even as they are eclipsed or taken for granted, they are fully part of the event-richness of the period.
That Manchester cell, owing allegiance to al Qaeda, was active in the dangerous years following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, which heightened the United Kingdom’s status as a desired target for violent Islamists. An earlier group had succeeded in bombing London’s transport system on 7 July 2005, or 7/7, with three suicide bombers on underground trains and one on a double-decker bus killing fifty-two commuters and injuring hundreds more.
Its human cost reinforced by its iconic target, 7/7 is regarded as the nadir of terrorism in the United Kingdom, alongside the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over the Scottish town of Lockerbie in 1988, which took 259 lives. Even the three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland produced nothing comparable; there, the highest death toll in a single incident was the twenty-nine killed at Omagh in 1998 by a “dissident” faction of the IRA following the peace agreement that April. The IRA’s bombings of two pubs in Birmingham in 1974 had killed twenty-one people, which until 7/7 was the largest number in Britain – a total now, tragically, exceeded in Manchester.
The Belfast settlement did not wholly end this Irish chapter, for three IRA splinters remained active if largely well contained. It was also in the late 1980s that a form of Islamist radicalism in the domestic arena became more visible in threatening protests against Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses. In 1989, a would-be killer of Rushdie blew himself up in a London hotel.
These protests, sparked by Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie – and spreading far beyond his Shi’a co-adherents – were an augur, linking a diverse British (or Britain-based) Muslim population with its diasporas. In the new geopolitical world of the 1990s, disputes in and around the Muslim world – Afghanistan, Iraq, Kashmir, Algeria or Bosnia – began to resonate with a minority of the faithful in Western countries. This created fertile ground for charismatic preachers committed to the spread of Saudi-inspired Wahhabi–jihadi propaganda, and able to use their followers to gain control of leading mosques. It was a process that the blind eye of John Major’s Conservative government did nothing to stop.
Such international trends, as they worked their way through the domestic arena, established an influential current of radical Islamism. It contained many local and neighbourhood networks, and national and ideological divisions, but drew from the same bank of written and audio resources (crucially, videotaped sermons) that advocated, among many other things, relentless struggle against the kafir and the infidel.
It’s important to emphasise that this current has always been a small minority among the wider British Muslim population (at over three million, now around 4.5 per cent of the UK population). The leading organisations have often been at great pains, partly under pressure from governments, to distance themselves from any taint of affinity with extremism. Against this, several influences – including a potent coalescence of radical Islamist and left-wing opinion, which also gained heavy traction in the establishment media and universities – continued to disseminate political Islamism far beyond other understandings of the religion (and indeed of international politics, including the Muslim world).
By the mid 2000s, the internet was succeeding the videotape as, for some, a potent tool of indoctrination. Social media and newer tools then transformed the possibilities of micro- and self-organisation. This made it easier to encounter radical nostrums, to directly engage with indoctrinators, to be exposed to online grooming, and to self-radicalise. Again, those actively involved at any one time are but a limited segment of (mainly) young Muslims. They also swim in benign waters, for equally significant is the fact that Muslims who challenge extremist dogmas and speak boldly for democracy face unremitting threats and abuse. There are many examples. Sara Khan, author of The Battle for British Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Identity from Extremism, is one.
The fluid dynamics of radical Islamism in Britain are brilliantly tracked and analysed by, notably, Raffaello Pantucci (“We Love Death As You Love Life”: Britain’s First Suburban Terrorists), Shiraz Maher (Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea), and Peter R. Neumann (Radicalized: New Jihadists and the Threat to the West). Not enough is yet publicly known about the suspect in the Manchester attack, Salman Abedi, the twenty-two-year-old son of refugees who have since returned to Libya, nor of any associates. Every individual is unique. But how much the still-to-be-confirmed perpetrator fits the patterns identified by these scholars remains to be seen.
The two most serious Islamist-related incidents in Britain before the Manchester bombing illustrate the variety of threats now posed. In May 2013, an off-duty soldier was slaughtered in broad daylight in Woolwich, south London, by two men in their twenties. The killers were extreme Islamists of Nigerian origin and Christian upbringing, one of whom had studied at the University of Greenwich. They mowed Lee Rigby down with a car before using a cleaver and knives to murder him. By coincidence or not, Manchester’s trauma occurred on the same day four years later.
The next major incident came just two months and a day before the Manchester bombing, when a British convert to Islam who had adopted the name Khalid Masood used a car as a weapon to kill four pedestrians and injure around fifty before knifing a policeman to death.
Between the first and third of these events, the security services say that they have foiled thirteen serious plots. Those that have gone to court and thus are known about include plans for a drive-by shooting, a beheading, a grooming, and an incitement (of a contact in Australia by a fourteen-year-old) – all of the prospective targets presumed to be soldiers.
Among recent trends, the internationalisation and acceleration of security threats stand out. JTAC says that 500 live investigations are under way in Britain, 80 per cent of them linked to Islamic State. Around 1000 British people have gone to Syria, most to join Islamic State or affiliated groups. Perhaps half have returned or are trying to. The pace of threat is increasing: arrests related to terrorism are running at an average of one per day in 2017, and Pantucci emphasises that these increasingly relate to active plans rather than background support. In Europe alone, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Germany have all been hit since 2013, with 316 people now killed. That makes European, and wider, cooperation ever more important, Brexit or no Brexit.
Materials, expertise, ideology, will. Method, location, target. Terrorism’s ingredients are as basic as they were in the 1890s or the 1970s or in 2001. So are the percussive effects of its attacks. After Manchester, even apart from the scarcely imaginable agony of survivors, those effects have just begun. •