May 23, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The Manchester Suicide Attack
Heightened concerns over the last several months about an increased terror threat in the U.K. were realized in an apparent suicide attack in Manchester, England. The site of the attack, a concourse that connected Victoria Station with the Manchester Arena, was filled with people leaving a concert by pop singer Ariana Grande, whose fan base is overwhelmingly young girls. At approximately 10:30pm local time on May 22, a still-unidentified male detonated a suicide vest filled with shrapnel, killing 22 people and wounding at least 59 more. The victims and wounded include several children.
There have been no claims of responsibility, though there is also no shortage of suspected groups. The so-called Islamic State has repeatedly called for these types of attacks, yet similar calls from al-Qaeda make that group another likely suspect. In mid-May, al-Qaeda released another message from Hamza bin Laden—the son of Osama bin Laden—whose public profile in the terror organization is on the rise. In the audio message, bin Laden called for ‘martyrdom’ attacks in the West; a week earlier, the same call for inspired attacks was made by Qasim al-Raymi, leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). AQAP is perhaps al-Qaeda’s most capable and dangerous affiliate, and is widely known for its bomb making skills.
British investigators—as well as many other countries with whom London has deep counterterrorism liaison ties, including the United States—will work quickly to determine the identity of the suicide bomber through the analysis of DNA, and the review of closed-circuit television (CCTV) that would have captured the attacker’s movements to the area. The priority will be to determine if the attacker acted alone or as part of a larger network. Making a suicide vest, even with instructions available online, requires some level of experience or skill. The term ‘lone wolf’ has for years been used to describe individuals attacking with little to no direction or support from a larger terror network. Yet, the term is an inadequate description of the modern manifestation of terror, in which an individual attacker may not be a member of a terrorist organization but typically maintains some connections to a larger support network beyond the consumption of extremist propaganda online. In such instances, it is often the case that a friend, family member, or associate knew of the attacker’s radicalization and violent intentions, if not the specifics of the attack itself. This does not mean the attack is easily or even realistically preventable in the traditional counterterrorism sense, given that such attacks retain a small footprint that is incredibly difficult for law enforcement and intelligence agencies to detect beforehand.
U.K. security agencies have been working at a very high operational tempo for months as the country struggles to deal with a relatively large list of known or suspected extremists. The location of the Manchester attack—a soft target at the nexus of a pop music concert and a train station—is one that defies even the best attempts at hardening its security due to its design and function. The Manchester attack is the latest in a string of recent attacks that seek to weaponize the best aspects of modern urban life. Such attacks are designed to exploit the vulnerabilities inherent in places of pubic gathering, and seek to inject terror and divisiveness into every aspect of public life, discourse, and policy. As the Islamic State collapses in Syria and Iraq, and both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda increasingly call for attacks against soft targets in the West, the list of potential threats to European countries is only likely to expand.
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