By Hiranmay Karlekar
27 May 2017
The Manchester massacre is a reminder of the history of Islamic terror in Europe and the need to stem out the mastermind recruiters of many Salman Abedis
However good a country’s intelligence and security establishment, it cannot prevent all terrorist attacks. This truism holds good for the horrific suicide blast in Manchester on Monday, May 22, night, which killed at least 22 and wounded 59 persons, many in both categories being minors and children. Obviously, however, things cannot be allowed to rest here. The explosion, once again underlined the fact that has been known for more than a decade: Britain faces a major fundamentalist Islamist terrorist threat and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. This has been made further clear by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s raising of the terror threat level to “critical” — the highest — in the wake of the Manchester attack. Armed troops have been deployed on British streets and around ‘key locations’ including, the Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street, the Palace of Westminster and embassies.
Such precautionary and preventive measures are understandable, as, equally, are questions about the efficacy of the anti-terror policies that Britain has been following. It can be nobody’s case that these have been a dismal failure. The situation had become alarming even before the explosions in three trains in London’s underground mass transit system and one in a public bus that killed 56 persons, including four terrorists, on July 7, 2005.
The more diabolical among these included one to attack unspecified targets in Britain including night clubs and shopping centres using fertiliser bombs. A joint operation by the police and Military Intelligence, Section 5 (MI5), code-named “Operation Crevice”, had led to the arrest of a number of people between March 29 and April 1, 2004.
In August 2006, British police foiled a terrorist plot to blow up at least 10 trans-Atlantic aircraft carrying passengers to North America. It thwarted two more strikes on June 29 and 30 respectively. On the former, it discovered and disabled bombs in two cars in London; in the second, two men drove in a dark-green Cherokee jeep into the main entrance of the Glasgow airport and set fire to it as they could not break through. One of them died of burn injuries. The other was tried and sentenced to 32 years of imprisonment.
Threats continued — in late September, Western intelligence agencies claimed to have uncovered an Al Qaeda plot to carry out coordinated terror attacks in Britain, France and Germany. ABBC report stated that both France and Germany were in a heightened state of alert and quoted British officials as saying that the plot had not been halted but an attack was not expected immediately.
As could be expected, the 2012 London Olympics sharply increased fears of a terrorist strike while it was being held. There were a number of arrests and the most elaborate security arrangements made — all of which once again raised the question as to how safe Britain and the rest of Europe were from terror attacks. The latter stem from two sources — internal and external. The external contribution takes the form of training, inspiration and indoctrination.
Till the Al Qaeda’s decline in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it and its affiliates in Pakistan were the prime movers. James Brandon, the noted expert on Jihadi terrorism, pointed out in an article in the CTC Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Centre, the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point, that it was becoming clear with the emergence of more evidence from police and judicial investigations that, “many of the United Kingdom’s largest terrorist plots developed as a result of the plotters’ close involvement with senior members of the Al Qaeda in Pakistan.”
In the last couple of years, the Islamic State (IS) of Syria and the Levant has emerged as the main centre of inspiration and the main coordinator of terror strikes in Europe, drawing hundreds of young people from the latter to join the ranks of its fighters in Syria and Iraq.
According to one estimate, France accounts for the largest number, 1,200, followed by Germany (760), Britain (700), and Belgium (470). Many of those returning after participating in combat, are trained in the use of arms and explosives and capable of making bombs. They operate in small groups and their activities are coordinated from the The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) headquarters in Syria, to spread terror.
This is beginning to make a difference to the scene in Britain. Since the busting of the bigger and better-organised plots there after 2006, ‘lone wolves’ and ‘self-radicalised’ Jihadi terrorists had come to dominate the terror scene in that country. They displayed a low-level of expertise and ‘poor tradecraft’.
But as Michael Clarke, then Director-General of the Royal United Services Institute, has pointed out, a large number of such individuals could be “lucky in a few attempts”.
The danger was all greater because they were, “harder to track and their behaviour much harder to predict”. Now small groups also seem to have appeared and, significantly, it is now believed that a “wider group of individuals” — including the person who provided the suicide bomber, Salman Abedi, with his deadly device — might have been involved in the Manchester attack.
The question is: What does all this mean in terms of fighting Islamist terrorism? The first requirement is the liquidation of the ISIL as soon and as comprehensively as possible. Defeat will not only remove its ability to direct terror strikes abroad and train potential terrorists on its territory, it will also undermine the glamour the ISIL acquired as a result of its early military successes which enabled it and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to claim invincibility and of being designated by Allah to establish Sharia rule, the world over. With defeat and vanishing glamour will disappear its appeal that had attracted many of the youth from Europe to the ranks of its fighters.
There is doubtless the very real danger that with the shrinking of its territory in the Middle East, the ISIL will retaliate with more frequent and vicious terror strikes in European countries, including Britain. These have to be dealt with at one level by enhancing the competence of intelligence and security establishments and, at the other, by theologically squaring up to face the challenge of militant Islam.
Simultaneously, European Governments need to recognise that they are now paying the price of not having acted early and strongly enough against the spread of violent Islamist fundamentalism on their soil and rabid, hate-filled speeches by clerics especially imported from South Asia and the Middle East for the purpose. Nor were adequate efforts made to stanch the massive flow of funds to fundamentalist clerics and Salafi organisations which, in Britain particularly, took over one mosque after another, sometimes buying them outright. Corrective action needs to follow and without delay.
Hiranmay Karlekar is Consultant Editor of The Pioneer and an author