The sophistication of the terrorist attack on Manchester has taken the UK security services by surprise. What they had been preparing for in the main was a Mumbai style marauding attack, or another vehicular incident such as last month’s Westminster murders. Not since 2005 have terrorists successfully used an explosive device in the UK, this bomb in particular was complex and used compact explosives. Where these came from and whether they are part of a larger consignment in part lies behind the decision to raise the terror level from “severe” to “critical”.
The view of the intelligence community is that this socially alienated 22-year-old university drop out was not the brains behind either this bomb or the way in which it was employed. Instead they have concluded that the Manchester bomber was not so much a home grown radical but the willing accomplice of a foreign based plot, most likely from Libya. The implications of this thinking are that the bomb-makers and attack planners are still at large.
The timing is also crucial for the threat state. Attacking countries during their elections has been a staple of terrorist groups in recent years, starting with the 2004 Madrid train bombing and followed by the 2012 attacks on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Not only is there a fear that the attacks will affect the election result by creating a climate of fear and vulnerability, but there is also the very real risk that members of the cabinet and opposition could be targeted while on the campaign stump. The security services will be mindful of the murder by the IRA of Airey Neave MP, six weeks before the election of Margret Thatcher in 1979.
While Theresa May described the decision to raise the security threat as “proportional and sensible” it is also an exceptional act reflecting the severity of the threat assessment. It is more than ten years since the UK has been at such a state of perceived vulnerability and not since 2003 have troops been deployed in such a visible way on mainland Britain. It is likely, however, to be a short term measure while the Manchester network is rounded up in the North West and any other explosive materials are seized. The activation of “Operation Temperer” allows for the deployment of up to 5000 soldiers to guard fixed sites and critical national infrastructure in order to free armed police to pursue the more dynamic investigation. Already more than a thousand troops are guarding Parliament and major train stations.
Although no one will want to be seen to be making political capital from the Manchester attacks, this atrocity does pose wider questions, which will no doubt be raised once election campaigning resumes. The necessity of deploying troops on the streets is in part an indication that there are not enough armed response police officers in the UK and most of these are based in London and the South East. While the deployment of troops is a reassuring temporary measure to deter further attacks and to free resources to tackle this particular network it is not a long term solution. With roughly 400 Jihadist having returned from Syria and Iraq, and the gradual release of terrorists who have served out their prison sentences, together with efforts to radicalize home grown British extremists over the internet, the UK faces a long and difficult job of preventing and disrupting the terrorist threat.
With this level of activity questions need to be asked whether enough is being done to resource the Police and Intelligence Agencies for the considerable challenge that they face. This is true not just in tracking the potential perpetrators of actual plots but also in educating the public and potential family members in what to look for in a radicalized and alienated individual.
More also needs to be done to promote tolerance within, and inclusion of, those communities in which hate can so clearly incubate. Only by understanding and engaging with the twisted ideology of hate can the causes of terrorism within our society be addressed. While such hate is allowed to grow unchecked we will never be safe from such atrocities and we will all be victims in a sense, of the divisions that channel such anger.