Analysis - Security Studies

Living with Terrorism

How the British Policies towards Islamists Backfired?

Wednesday، May 24، 2017
Living with Terrorism

Salman Abedi, a British of Libyan origin, detonated an improvised explosive device at a concert in Manchester, killing twenty-two people and injuring another 59 on March 22, 2017. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.[1] It is noteworthy to pinpoint that the UK threat level has been has been ranked at a severe level for nearly three years, which means an attack is considered highly likely.

Implication of the attack

1-     A more complex attack: According to various statements, one can argue that this attack was not a lone wolf threat, but rather a coordinated attack that was perpetuated by a terrorist cell, with a bomb maker, still undetected. Accordingly, this raises the threat level from ISIS, and shifting it from inspiring attacks to directing assaults.

2-    Insufficient Resources: MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence service, “has tabs on up to 3,000 people whom it regards as religious extremists, but it only has the resources for the constant monitoring of about 40 of them.” Thus some people who turn out to be highly dangerous “may slip off the radar.”[2] That could explain how Salman Abedi, who was already known to the security service,[3] yet he wasn’t detected.

3-     Focus on soft targets: Recent attacks have targeted congregations of people in crowded areas to curb any attempts by the police to expect or secure the target. In addition, the higher the number of casualties, the more is the influence of the attack. That is the reason why most of the attacks conducted by ISIS targeted either airports, or metro stations, aiming to exhaust security forces.

4-    Increasing dependence over military forces: Military personnel have been deployed to secure key sites along with the police, as a second attack by ISIS is anticipated. This tactic was also applied in a various European countries, most notably France, Brussels, and Germany after experiencing terrorist attacks.

Possible Causes

Manchester terrorist attack is the second one witnessed by the UK in 2017. In March a terrorist ran over pedestrians, and stabbed a police officer within the proximity of the British Parliament, resulting in the death of 4 people.

These attacks reflect noticeable escalation of terrorist threats, despite that UK has been one of the western sympathetic countries towards radical Islamic groupings, hosting a number of them such as: the Muslim brotherhood, and despite the UK was considered more secure compared to its counterparts in the European continent.

This escalation can be attributed to the following reasons:

     The threat of foreign fighters: It is estimated that the number of British nationals who joined the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq to range from 800 to 850 persons. It is assumed that more than 400 of those fighters have returned home.[4] Security officials in Britain predicts that some of them may carry out future attacks, in the light of the expected defeat of the group in Iraq and Syria.[5]

It is important here to pinpoint that Western countries are suffering from the threat of foreign fighters. This is evident in warnings issued on weekly basis from different European capitals. Moreover, since the beginning of 2017, ISIS has managed to implement four attacks, targeting Britain, France and Sweden.[6]

    Urging Lone Wolf attacks: ISIS and Al Qaeda have been successful in inspiring lone wolves to conduct attacks against Western targets. Since the murder of a soldier in east London in 2013, Britain’s counter-terrorism police and intelligence agencies claim to have prevented 13 terrorist plots.[7]

     Moreover, al-Qaeda is trying to rejuvenate its relevance in the Jihadi scene that has been foreshadowed by the rise of ISIS, and it was successful in launching several attacks against European countries. This was evident in Osama bin Laden’s son, Hamza, recent call, in a recorded propaganda message, urging al-Qaeda’s followers to attack Jews, Americans, Westerners and even Russians, in lone-wolf-style attacks, using whatever means available.[8] 

          Marriage of convenience with Conservative MuslimsThe British police relied on the conservative Muslims, rather than the mainstream or more liberal ones, to dissuade youth from transitioning to violence. Conservative clerics are believed to have more credibility among young extremists.

Robert Lambert, former head of the Muslim Contact Unit at New Scotland Yard, for instance, points out that the young West Indian conservatives who gained control of the Brixton mosque in London during the 1990s fought Abu Qatada’s efforts to establish a position of influence at the mosque. This policy has a spillover; it legitimatized Islamists as representatives for the European Muslim communities and ignored their efforts to create parallel societies separate from the broader national community.[9]

Moreover, Britain tolerated the British Muslim Brotherhood activities, despite the main findings of the “Muslim Brotherhood Review” which was ordered by British Prime Minister David Cameron and conducted by Sir John Jenkins. The review clearly stated that “Parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have a highly ambiguous relationship with violent extremism. Both as an ideology and as a network it has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism.”[10] One possible explanation of turning blind eye to MB activities could be attributed to the fact that elements in MI5 and foreign office have long regarded the Brotherhood as a helpful ally at home and abroad([11]).

In addition, for long extremist organizations were not involved in any activities deemed threatening to the British security. However, this may have changed with Manchester attack. The father of the perpetrator was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting group, an organization with affiliations to al-Qaeda, in the 1990s, when he left Libya and successfully sought political asylum in UK. He didn’t return to Libya, except in 2011, with the ouster of Gaddafi, where he was appointed as administrative manager for the Tripoli Central Security forces.[12]

          Extremist Incubator: The above-mentioned policies led to the presence of extremists’ incubators in some British cities. Birmingham, Britain’s second-biggest city behind London, is considered one of the hotbeds of Islamic extremism. It has produced a disproportionate number of Islamist militants. One example is the man who is believed to have recruited Jihadi John, ISIS executioner, was from Birmingham. Other prominent militants who have come through the city’s underground networks include Abdelhamid Abaaoud, organizer of the 2015 Paris attacks, and Mohamed Abrini, a Belgian national who helped plot the 2016 Brussels attacks,[13] as well as Khalid Masood, who attacked Britain's parliament in March 2017.              

         Exploiting societal tensions:  The terrorist attacks aim at increasing tensions between Muslim communities and European communities, especially at a time, when Europe is witnessing a rise of the far-right wing with its populist rhetoric. The aim of terrorist groups is to alienate Muslim communities, thus making it more susceptible to ISIS propaganda and recruitment processes. On the other hand, the right wing rhetoric has increased xenophobic attitudes exacerbating tensions and violence in some cases by its supporters. For instance, the arrest of a German soldier, who led a "double life" pretending to be a Syrian refugee, due to the suspicion that he planned a gun attack([14]) shed the light on the increasing societal tensions that European countries have already been suffering from.

Future attacks

Terrorist attacks is on the rise in Europe. It is possible that terrorist attacks will take the following forms:

1-    Lone wolf attacks: ISIS has been one of the most successful terrorist group, who is able to inspire terrorist attacks. Most probably, such attacks are carried out by “people who suffers from personal issues that lead them to self-alienation as well as a willingness to inflict serious violence,” as Richard Fenning, the Global CEO political consultancy Control Risks, told CNBC.[15] This status makes it hard to for security forces to detect the attackers.

Also, its members have relatively adopted new techniques in conducting such attacks, like “ramming attacks”, which was initially applied in Nice, France on July 14, 2017, and was later utilized in several terrorist attacks, such as Stockholm truck attack that killed four people killed and injured another 15, on April 2017.[16]

This type of attacks pose a growing threat to the Western countries. In the United States, a new Transportation Security Administration report, warns Truck owners and truck rental agencies in the US against the increasing frequency of "ramming attacks" by terrorists using vehicles as killing machines.[17] This type of attacks is appealing to terrorists as it inflict high number of causalities, which was evident in the 87 persons killed by a terrorist using a commercial truck in Nice terrorist attack.[18] In addition, Ramming attacks don’t require sophisticated preparation or expertise to create explosives, all they need is stealing a truck and target a crowded area.

2-     Coordinated attacks from overseas: Such attacks have usually been conducted by the returning foreign fighters, or those who had had been able to infiltrate the refugees wave to enter Europe, as evident in Paris December 2015 attacks and Brussels March 2016 bombings. ISIS foreign fighters employ tradecraft skills to avoid detection, as they are aware of the security measures and high proportion of resources directed against them.[19] If Manchester attack was carried out by a cell affiliated to ISIS that would certainly increase the threats posed by the group to the European security, and reveals the ability of ISIS to infiltrate Britain’s tight security measures.

As ISIS loses territory in Syria and Iraq, it is expected that the group will continue to pose an increasing threat to the European security. It will continue to focus on “soft targets”, and crowded areas in order to inflict mass causalities, and make it harder to detect the groups’ next attacks. Britain has invested in surveillance technology in order to thwart terrorist attacks, yet the presence of terrorist incubator inside Britain reveals that some of the radicalized people might transform to potential terrorists, which make it harder to act proactively against them.


[1]) Chiara Palazzo, Manchester terror attack: everything we know so far, The Telegraph, May 23, 2017, accessible at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/05/23/manchester-terror-attack-everything-know-far/

[2]) Lone wolf or complex plot? Analysing the Manchester bombing, op.cit.

[3]) UK minister says Manchester bomber likely did not act alone, criticizes U.S. leaks, Reuters, May 24, 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/YO3EFY  

[4]) Lone wolf or complex plot? Analysing the Manchester bombing, The Economist, May 23, 2017, accessible at: http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21722472-use-improvised-bomb-may-suggest-more-elaborate-plan-other-recent-attacks

[5]) Patrick Wintour, Islamic State fighters returning to UK 'pose huge challenge', The Guardian, March 9, 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/LUTPvE

[6])  Karen Yourish, How the Manchester Blast Compares to Recent Deadly Terror Attacks in Europe, The New York Times, May 23, 2017, accessible at: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/05/23/world/europe/europe-terror-attacks.html?_r=0

[7]) Terror in London: Britain suffers its worst terrorist attack since 2005, The Economist, March 25, 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/63NID7

[8]) Dugald McConnell and Brian Todd, Latest al Qaeda propaganda highlights bin Laden's son, CNN, May 16, 2017, accessible at: http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/15/middleeast/al-qaeda-bin-laden-son/

[9]) Angel Rabasa and Cheryl Benard, Eurojihad: Patterns of Islamist Radicalization and Terrorism in Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), epub edition.

[10]) ‘Political Islam’, and the Muslim Brotherhood Review, House of Commons: Foreign Affairs Committee, November 1, 2016, (p. 36), accessible at: https://goo.gl/g2ihfP  

[11]) Melanie Phillips, It’s time we banned the Muslim Brotherhood, The Times, December 18, 2015, accessible at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/its-time-we-banned-the-muslim-brotherhood-mjtrfjk55px

[12]) Ramadan Abedi, Salman’s Father: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know, Heavy, May 24, 2017, accessible at: http://heavy.com/news/2017/05/ramadan-abedi-salman-father-dad-abu-ismail-isis-libya-manchester-terrorist-attack-ariana-grande/

[13]) Katrin Bennhold and Kimiko De FREYTAS-TAMURA, Why Do All the Jihadis Come to Birmingham?, New York Times, MARCH 26, 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/8VFZ3b

[14]) German soldier 'disguised himself as refugee to carry out terror attack', The Local de, April 27, 2017, accessible at: https://www.thelocal.de/20170427/german-soldier-disguised-himself-as-refugee-to-carry-out-terror-attack

[15]) Nyshka Chandran, Manchester attack likely the work of lone wolf than terror network, analyst says, CNBC, March 23, 2017, accessible at: http://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/22/manchester-attack-this-was-a-well-thought-out-plan.html

[16]) Ulf Andersson (et al.), ISIS-supporting' Uzbeki father-of-four, 39, is arrested before another suspect is led away in handcuffs, Mail online, April 7, 2017, accessible at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4390436/Truck-rammed-group-pedestrians-Stockholm.html

[17]) Robert Windrem and William M. Arkin, TSA Report Warns Against Truck Ramming Attacks by Terrorists, NBC news, May 4, 2017, accessible at: https://goo.gl/6LqGf6

[18]) Ibid.

[19]) Brexit divisions elevate impact and likelihood of UK terrorism in the short term, Jane's Terrorism & Insurgency Monitor, July 6, 2016, accessible at: http://janes.ihs.com.nduezproxy.idm.oclc.org/TerrorismInsurgencyCentre/Display/1773351

Keywords: TerrorismISISAl-QaedaManchester