Manchester attack: three questions to consider

Martin Rickett/PA via AP
Police offices add to the flowers for the victims of Monday night pop concert explosion, in St Ann's Square, Manchester, Tuesday May 23, 2017.

In what has become an all-too-familiar occurrence, an apparent terrorist attack has once again struck the European public, this time at a concert by American singer Ariana Grande in Manchester, England, attended by thousands of pre-teen and teenaged girls.

At the time of writing, the death toll was at 22, with more than 50 injured in what has been described as a suicide bombing just at the foyer of the Manchester Arena. Media reports and recent patterns suggest that the perpetrator is likely another radicalized, lone-wolf attacker, perhaps inspired by the so-called Islamic State, which has already claimed responsibility.

But despite the horror of the situation – indeed, because of it – it is important to look at underlying issues. Some questions to consider as the details of the attack unfold:

Who did it? This is less a question of what terrorist group may be behind it than a question of who the bomber was himself, and where he came from. Police have identified the perpetrator as 22-year-old Salman Abedi, who was born in Manchester to parents who fled Libya's Qaddafi regime. Their investigation is ongoing into whether he acted alone or had help. But terrorist attacks in Europe are, by and large, a homegrown affair. The July 7 London bombers, the Lee Rigby murder, the Bataclan attack, the Bastille Day truck attack in Nice, all were committed by either European citizens or European residents. Many of the perpetrators were radicalized domestically, often during prison time for low- to mid-level crimes. And though often made the scapegoat, immigrants – and refugees in particular – generally have not made up a significant portion of the attackers.

That is not to say that terrorist groups do not play a role. Indeed, ISIS has already claimed to have a role – they are so quick to claim any such attack, in fact, that one must take their word with a grain of salt. But certainly such radical groups, Islamic State or otherwise, could have helped fuel the engine that drove the Manchester attack, either through ideological, technological, or psychological support online. But the spark of the attack may well prove to be of domestic origin, in which case Britain must look inward for solutions, not outward.

Could the attack realistically have been stopped? It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that just a little more security could have prevented the events in Manchester. If the event security cordon had been another 100 feet out, if the police had knocked on one more door, if intel agents had one more phone tap on suspected Islamist militants in the city, the attack could have been thwarted. Right?

Well, perhaps. Certainly, there will be those who espouse even greater security as the way to prevent repeats in future. But that logic only works if the sole goal of the perpetrators is to blow up a specific target, like the Ariana Grande show, and that’s almost certainly not the case. For terrorism to be successful, most any crowded target would do. Even if Ms. Grande’s show could be terror-proofed, at whatever expense that might entail, terrorists could simply switch to a different target. If they do, they still fulfill their objective by killing dozens, and all the effort put into iron-cladding security is mooted.

The point to keep in mind is that increasing security comes with decreasing returns. The long-term solutions will have to come down a different path.

Why target children? The most upsetting aspect of the Manchester attack is that it targeted an event primarily attended by the teenage and pre-teen girls that make up Ms. Grande’s fan base. That’s likely not an accident. Terrorist attacks in Europe have becoming disturbingly familiar, enough so that they sometimes fail to shock an evermore inured public. The Bataclan attacks in November 2015, which left 137 dead, were devastating – so much so that the suicide bombings in Brussels just five months later, killing 32, seemed tragic but less severe. The same with the truck attack in Nice in July 2016 – its death toll of 87 paled the Berlin truck attack in December, killing 12. Every new peak makes any lesser attack easier to endure.

All these attacks were tragic, and no victim is worth less than any other. But from the perspective of terrorists who are trying to stir anger and fear across Europe, the more familiar attacks become, the less effective they are. A terrorist act that provokes a stoic response is a failure. That could explain the targeting of children in Manchester. The death toll may be low in comparison to earlier attacks across Europe, but the emotional response it provokes is likely aimed at trying to ensure that it won’t be shrugged off by those not directly affected by it.

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