May 24, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The U.K.’s ‘Critical’ Terror Threat Level
With families and communities still reeling from the May 22 suicide bombing that killed 22 people outside a pop concert in Manchester, England, U.K. authorities took the extremely rare step of raising the terror threat level to ‘critical,’ its highest possible level. This is only the third time in the country’s history that the government has raised the level to critical, meaning that the authorities have reason to believe that another attack is imminent. This also suggests that officials have yet to determine if the 22-year-old bomber, Salman Abedi, a British citizen born in Manchester, acted alone or as part of a larger network of conspirators.
The attacker’s use of a suicide belt is not by itself conclusive evidence of a larger plot, but it does raise the prospect that he operated with at least some support from a broader network of extremists. Further analysis of the device—such as the type of explosives and other components used to manufacture it—will add a great deal of insight into the rapidly unfolding threat matrix. The sense that there continues to be a credible additional threat is no doubt what led the U.K. government to increase the terror threat level to critical, which allows for military troops under civilian authority to augment police and security operations. British Prime Minister Theresa May said the critical level was ‘a proportionate and sensible response’ to what is, and has been for some time, a very challenging counterterrorism environment.
There have been press reports that the attacker, whose parents came to England from Libya as refugees, had recently traveled abroad, with some reporting that he traveled to Libya. While the so-called Islamic State claimed credit for the Manchester attack through its semi-official propaganda outlet ‘Amaq’, crucial details remain unanswered. Among these questions are the extent to which members or supporters of the Islamic State had contact with the attacker; what training or guidance, if any, he may have received; and whether such training or contact took place while on foreign travel, in the U.K., or both.
The attack in Manchester highlights a troubling and increasingly common trend in recent terror attacks—it appears that the suspect was known previously to authorities as a potential extremist threat. However, investigators appear to have determined that Abedi neither rose to the level of warranting more extensive coverage, nor crossed the legal thresholds to warrant an arrest. In hindsight, some aspects of the case might seem far clearer than the information available to investigators at the time. At the very least, it demonstrates the challenge for even the best intelligence services to accurately detect and disrupt foreign travel by suspected extremists.
The ability of law enforcement and intelligence services to constantly monitor and prevent the activities of violent extremists has become dangerously unbalanced in recent years. The main challenge in the U.K.—and Europe more broadly—is that the number and type of ‘potential’ threats continues to expand, while the ability to accurately prioritize and assess these threats remains largely fixed. Persistent conflicts that have burned for years in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and elsewhere show no signs of abating in the short or medium term, providing ample opportunities for aspiring violent extremists to travel abroad and engage with active terror groups. Such conflicts also offer unending streams of propaganda for distribution among domestic extremists through targeted and effective online campaigns. Compounding the challenge posed by these conflicts is the enduring ideology of bin Ladenism which is relentlessly spouted by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and continues to proliferate to dangerous effect. While the decision by U.K. officials to raise the terror threat level was informed by the specific and immediate concerns over the fallout of the Manchester attack, the growing pool of potential extremist threats among domestic populations ensures that the threat level will remain high for the foreseeable future.
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