Manchester’s lesson about fragile states

The suicide bomber, who seemed like a lost young man, may have been trained by Islamic State in Libya, one of the world’s most fragile states. 

Reuters
Fighters from Libyan forces allied with the U.N.-backed government gather as they advance into an area controlled by Islamic State, in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 14, 2016.

One connection between Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber in Manchester, England, and most of his victims was their youthful fragility. He was a child of Muslim immigrants, and at 22 years old, not much older than the teens at the May 22 pop concert. By early accounts, he was vulnerable to the siren call of jihadi violence. And where did he go for his training? According to British authorities, he was recently in Libya, home to a branch of Islamic State (ISIS).

Much of the world’s struggle against terrorism involves either protecting or preventing fragility – and not only in people. Libya itself has become a model of a fragile state. In a global ranking of countries for their “fragility” – or vulnerability from weak governance and social pressures – Libya has worsened the most over the past decade, according to the Fund for Peace.

Since the killing of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, the North African country has had at least two well-armed groups claiming to be the government. The vacuum of political authority has allowed warring factions and militant groups like ISIS to flourish. No wonder the American ambassador to Libya prefers to live in nearby Tunisia and only visits Libya for a few hours.

In many of the world’s most fragile states, ISIS and similar groups have gained a foothold. This trend has created a small industry in the study of fragile states and how to assist them. Much of the effort is focused on building up inclusive governance, strong institutions, and a stable economy. In short, resilience.

Yet a sure formula for bucking up a fragile state remains elusive. By one estimate, the United States has spent nearly $5 trillion trying to create stable societies in Afghanistan and Iraq – and still has a long way to go. In a recent study of 107 countries from 1991 to 2008, RAND Corp. found that US security aid to the most fragile states, such as Yemen, had accomplished little. Such countries lack the institutional capacity to absorb material or financial aid.

Yet the study did point to some success in nonmaterial aid, such as assistance in education, law enforcement, and counternarcotics. If the US and others want to help such countries, RAND finds “investment in human capital has large payoffs.”

Each terrorist attack points to a lesson not yet learned. One common theme of the Manchester bombing was fragility – of the bomber as a lost young man, of the concertgoers, and perhaps the country where he received training or guidance. The opposite of fragility is strength – strength in resisting a call for violence against the innocent and the strength of a society like Britain to recover from an attack. Fragile places like Libya also need strength in rebuilding themselves. If they can’t do it themselves, others must find the strength to assist them.

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