May 27th 2017
TERRORISTS often set out to slaughter the innocent. But none could be more innocent than eight-year-old Saffie Roussos. She was one of the children, most of them teenagers, who flocked to see Ariana Grande give a concert in Manchester on May 22nd. After the show, a suicide-bomber detonated a device packed with metal nuts and bolts, injuring over 60 and killing 22, including Saffie. As with the school massacres in Beslan in Russia in 2004 and Peshawar in Pakistan in 2014, the aim was to strike people where they are most vulnerable—as parents and grandparents and uncles and aunts. It succeeded.
For Britain, which had been spared deadly bomb blasts since the attacks in London in 2005, this was proof of how hard it is to foil every plot every time. For the world, which suffers attacks continually, it raises once again the question of how to stop people who are determined to kill.
The motives of the bomber, a 22-year-old Libyan Briton called Salman Abedi, may never be clear. Some have suggested that Ms Grande, a confident, sexually liberated woman who inspires teenage girls, stood for everything jihadists despise. When Islamic State (IS) is in retreat in its base in Syria and Iraq, and is struggling in Libya amid civil war and oppression (see article), perhaps the attack was a show of strength.
But there is a third possibility. IS has said that it wants to force sympathetic Muslims out of a “greyzone” in which they do not fully embrace the jihadists’ “caliphate” because they still feel loyalty to the country where they live. If so, IS can use extreme violence to provoke an official clampdown and to feed the indiscriminate suspicion of Muslims. With repeated attacks in France over the past two years and horrific cruelty this week, IS may be trying to trigger an anti-Muslim backlash that it can exploit to drive sympathisers into its arms.
The reaction in Britain to the Manchester bombing is a good way to thwart IS’s plans. A ritual has grown up after terrorist attacks that includes vigils, memorials and testimonials. It lets people express their collective grief in a secular society. It also gives Muslim groups a chance to distance themselves in public from jihadists and for other civic leaders to say that the threat from IS does not come from Islam in general. That sends a signal to Muslims and non-Muslims that now, of all times, they must be tolerant. It is precisely what IS does not want to hear.
Yet if IS succeeds in staging repeated attacks in Britain, this consensus will be at risk—as in France, which is under a state of emergency. Even now, some commentators are calling for terrorist suspects to be locked up or electronically tagged. That would be a mistake. To punish suspects who face no criminal charges would illegally single out Muslims from any other group. IS would have precisely the recruiting message it wants.
In the past 20 months the intelligence services have busted at least 12 plots. They are not asking for new powers. The government has put aside money for more staff. With this attack, as any other, there have been mistakes and missed leads. The security services must learn from them.
But the focus should also be on stopping sympathisers being drawn into IS’s orbit. In Britain that is the job of Prevent, a government scheme to counter radicalisation of all kinds. Propaganda is scrubbed from social media and counter-propaganda put in its place. Teachers are trained to spot would-be jihadists. Prevent is not perfect. It has been criticised as heavy-handed and vague. But the scheme has cut the numbers of young people going to the Middle East to fight. Now more than ever, when another British-born Muslim has struck his homeland, it needs refining and strengthening.