That ISIS claimed responsibility for the Manchester terror attack was not in itself definitive, but the manner of the killings left little doubt about the identity of those responsible. The murderer was a suicide bomber. The weapon used was a nail bomb. The venue was a pop concert. The location was a foyer in a hall that led out to a railway station. The atrocity was timed for the end of the gig – in order to maximise deaths, injuries and carnage. Those who were targeted were young girls, some in their teens, and some still children, leaving the event wearing kitten ears, full of happiness after a fun evening out, clutching pink balloons.
And now the dead terrorist has been named: Salman Abedi, the son of refugees from from Gadaffi’s Libya. It is reported that he was known to the authorities.
The atrocity has claimed 22 lives to date, but the toll will rise, alas, during the next few days. This makes it only the second successful Islamist mass terror attack since 7/7 – the first was the murder of five people and the injury of some 50 others at Westminster in March. It is also, therefore, the biggest such killing since that wretched day on the tube in London. It came exactly four years after the murder of Lee Rigby, and marks Manchester’s worst terror atrocity. Given the nature of the attack, it is likely that the suspect was part of a cell. If so, he may not have been the bomb maker. If so, again, the hunt for other members of that cell will be intense.
Donald Trump said today that those who commit such crimes are “evil losers”, and it is true that those who crawl out of the Islamist terror pool are inadequates – often, though not always, with eerily similar profiles, featuring broken families, drug problems, petty crime, and conversion to Islamist ideology. But there is more to the matter than winners and losers. Mohammed Sidique Khan, the leader of the 7/7 gang, was a teacher. Omar Khan Sharif, one of two British instigators of the terror attack on Mike’s Place in Israel, a former maths student at King’s College, London. Dhiren Barot, one of Al Qaeda’s main British operatives before the Iraq War, was the son of a banker.
Men like these have not been dealt losing hands by life. Nor would it be the end of the matter if they had been. Like other countries, we have more than our quota of losers – and evil people, too. But only a tiny fraction of both seek to blow apart the fragile bodies of British teenagers. Is it western foreign policy, then, which drives these Islamist fanatics? The claim has been comprehensively debunked. The twelve people murdered in the offices of Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with foreign policy. Nor did Kurt Westergaard, one of the Danish cartoonists, who survived an axe attack. Nor did the intended victims of the fertiliser bomb gang.
“You could get jobs like this, yeah, like for example the biggest nightclub in central London,” said Jawad Akbar, a member of that last conspiracy, whose bugged conversations were played during his trial. “Where now here, yeah, now no one can even turn around and say ‘Oh they were innocent,’ – those slags dancing around.” This returns us to Manchester, and previous Islamist attacks on pop concerts. Fear of western women and their freedoms is an integral part of the ideology which is struggling for control of Islam – a hatred of liberal democracy where Salafism and Islamism meet. This ideology is the switch that sparks the bomb, if the analogy is not too horrible today.
In moral terms, there is no difference between the murders in Westminster and those in Manchester: PC Keith Palmer was no less innocent than the young girls who died. Nor is murder by bomb intrinsically more wicked than murder by car. Those who died in Westminster Bridge should be mourned no less fiercely than those who died in the Manchester arena. But if there is no moral difference, there is perhaps a political one. We wrote after the Westminster attack that “Paris and Brussels have seen co-ordinated attacks by gangs of gun and bomb-wielding terrorists. To date, London and the rest of Britain have been spared that.” No longer, it seems.
You are almost certain to be no more or less safe from a terror attack now than you were in March. But it may not feel like that to many people. There is a peculiar horror about reading about the terribe plight of those young girls. Furthermore, Abedi appears to have been the child of refugees, which was not the case with the Westminster murderer. And since he indeed was known to the authorities, and was not a “lone wolf” but part of a cell, we must be ready for further twists in this horrible story. Its impact will more like that of 7/7 than that of the Westminster assault.
Some will say that the election campaign should be resumed speedily: “we mustn’t let terrorists derail democracy”. Others will counter that it shouldn’t: “out of respect for the dead, the injured and their families”. The question may be academic. There will be more deaths, alas, during the next few days. There will be harrowing accounts of what happened in that Manchester foyer. There will heartbreaking tales of grief and loss. There will be funerals to come. Given all this, it looks unlikely that campaigning will resume in earnest until this weekend. Above all, perhaps, there will be the hunt for Abedi’s accomplices, and uncertainty about their capabilities.
Furthermore, questions will be asked not only about whether the security services could have stopped him, but whether the concert’s organisers could have done so, too.
It is too early to say. But if searches had taken place at the foyer entrance, he could have detonated his bomb outside. Unless barriers had been set further back – thus creating more queues, and new targets. Perhaps this is the point. It is right to hold the authorities and others to account. But it can also become a displacement activity, as we grope for the comfort blanket of a complete security that doesn’t exist. There are no short cuts against Islamist terror. What will grind it down, if anything, is the recruitment of more spies and informers; checking and re-checking prison Imams; closing down bogus charities – in short, making sure that the Cameron/May/Gove strategy is implemented. Britain has been very, very lucky since 7/7. In Manchester, that luck ran out.