The Manchester Bombing and British Counterterrorism

Familiar Patterns, Fresh Consequences

British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks outside 10 Downing Street in London, May 2017.  TOBY MELVILLE / reuters

The Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed its second attack in the United Kingdom in three months. This week’s suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in the northwestern city of Manchester had, at the time of this writing, taken 22 lives and left dozens of people injured. The perpetrator was Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British citizen of Libyan descent. 

This was the worst terrorist attack the country had suffered since al Qaeda struck the London transport network on July 7, 2005, and the British government has raised its terrorist threat level to “critical,” meaning that another attack could occur imminently. Elements of the Manchester attack are unusual. For example, Libyan involvement in Islamist attacks in the United Kingdom is very rare. According to recent research from the Henry Jackson Society (previous editions to which I contributed), only one percent of those involved in Islamism-related offenses in the United Kingdom were of Libyan ancestry.

Other elements, however, are very familiar. That Abedi was a homegrown terrorist is unsurprising. In the United Kingdom, almost three-quarters of individuals who have committed Islamism-related offenses are British. Abedi was the child of Libyan refugees, a reminder that the challenges posed by refugees in Europe are not confined to the first generation. Abedi’s father is reportedly a member of the Islamist group the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, as a former Libyan security official told the Associated Press.

Balloons, flowers and messages of condolence in central Manchester, May 2017.
Balloons, flowers and messages of condolence in central Manchester, May 2017. Stefan Wermuth / REUTERS

It is also not surprising that a music venue was the target. British authorities disrupted a 2004 plot in which al Qaeda­–trained terrorists discussed an attack on a nightclub. Outlining the reason for targeting a nightclub, one of the plotters was secretly recorded saying that “no one can even turn around and say: ‘Oh, they were innocent, all those slags dancing around.’” Three years later, car bombs were left outside a nightclub in central London at the prompting of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor group to ISIS

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