The government faces numerous challenges—both in terms of surveillance, and in challenging the local social conditions which can allow radicalisation to occurby / May 24, 2017 / Leave a comment
In the wake of the Manchester bombing, which killed 22 people, hospitalising 59, the terrorist threat has been increased to “critical,” meaning an attack may be imminent.
Monday’s explosion, in which children as young as eight were among the dead and injured, was carried out by a 22-year-old British national of Libyan origin named Salman Ramadan Abedi. Born in Manchester in 1994, his parents were Libyan refugees who came to the UK to escape the Gaddafi regime.
As with the Westminster atrocity in March, Khalid Mahmoud, the attacker, was known to the security services but considered to be low risk.
This is the first time in ten years that the threat level has been raised to critical, and only the third time ever. What next?
Social factors will become important
As more details regarding Salman’s path towards violence are divulged, the role of social and enabling factors in processes of violent extremism will emerge.
One remarkable dimension of home-grown terrorism is the fact that it is overwhelmingly a local phenomenon.
Radicalisation to violence and recruitment to violent extremism occurs predominantly among clusters of friends and family in the same neighbourhood—in some instances, in the same street.
In fact, commentators have mentioned that Moss Side in Manchester has been home to nine individuals who have been either been known to join terrorist organisations, have left for Syria or Iraq and been killed, have disappeared or have been jailed.
Two Libyan young women who joined Daesh last year heralded from the same locale as Salman.
This fact is not insignificant for counter-terrorism experts and will shape how the investigation unfolds.
The importance of cities
One plausible yet tentative explanation is that the spatial dynamics of urban towns and cities in a post-industrial society have shaped the experiences of diaspora communities in Britain, especially following decades of hollowing by neo-liberal economics, globalisation and social dislocation.
Governments have failed to address structural issues like jobs, housing and marginalisation, as well as the complex question of belonging.
This has helped leave a segment of culturally displaced second and third generation Britons with a loss of identity, meaning, purpose and dignity.
The local is, therefore, overlooked and shunned in favour of the global.
An ignorance of Islam
Jihadi culture is thus made on the streets of Britain. It is forged by Western urban culture—gangster rap, grime, crime, drugs, and a sense of rebellion against mainstream culture and traditional authority—and cemented by an ignorance of Islam.
The road to redemption lays in a new identity: Salafi Jihadism with a “road-man” twist. There is little sign that British counter-terrorism knows how to address the structural and social issues at the heart of this problem.
Questions, then, regarding the viability of the UK’s current counter-terrorism policy will also be asked. Are we doing enough to prevent this process?
Investment has been made
The truth is that a lot of capital, political and emotional investment has been expended in tackling violent radicalisation since 2004. This has been accompanied by a vast security and resilience infrastructure, which include a whole raft of legal measures and mechanisms. Alongside this, there has been extensive training for public authorities and civil society on preventing violent radicalisation.
This is embodied in the UK Country Terrorism Strategy known as CONTEST, which is comprised of four ‘ps’: prepare, protect, prevent and pursue. CONTEST aims to prepare for attacks like the Manchester bombing.
Notwithstanding Britain’s counter-terrorism capabilities, recent attacks reveal the operational challenge facing UK counter-terrorism. “Low-tech” attacks—cars, trucks, knives and crude explosive devices—have become the ‘norm’ of terrorist attacks.
The prominence of low-tech attacks is partly explained by the fact Al-Qaeda has lost its ability to mount complex attacks because of its operational difficulties—Islamic State has learned from that and calculated that you can still achieve high impact this way.
The Security services have also got better at detecting the hi-tech plots, hence forcing the low-tech option onto these attackers.
And yet the Manchester bombing has all the hallmarks of being a sophisticated and well-planned attack. If a connection between IS and Salman is established, this suggests that IS will continue to try and execute both low-tech and sophisticated methods, posing further problems for the government.
Questions will be asked
Meanwhile, questions will still be asked about MI5’s process and why these peripheral figures are able to slip through the net.
MI5 has stated that it currently has more high-risk individuals under surveillance than ever in its history, with 500 priority cases exhausting its resources, whilst thousands of others remain under review.
Some argue that it is natural that some will inevitably escape surveillance and that risk itself can never be entirely eliminated—merely reduced.
Even in Northern Ireland—the most intensively monitored territory in the Western world in the 1980s and 1990s—bombs still went off.
We have become accustomed to high intolerance of risk in everyday life. And yet it is a level of risk that is with us for the foreseeable future. Looking beyond the Manchester attacks, profound structural, social, cultural and operational challenges lie ahead for British counter-terrorism.