Greg Sheridan, in The Australian, 24 May 2017, where the title is “Manchester Terror Attack: Endless Cycle of Jihadism” … with emphasis by highlights being the intervention of The Editor, Thuppahi
A crowd of mostly teenage girls, as innocent as young people can be, at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. It’s everything jihadist terrorists — from Islamic State to al-Qa’ida to the Taliban — hate most about the West, and everything that declares the innocence of youth and the pleasure of music in public spaces. The savage attack — believed to have been carried out by a lone male suicide bomber, leaving at least 22 dead, 60 injured and more fatalities likely — demonstrates the stark realities of the terrorism war. First, the terror threat in Western societies is not diminishing. Every so often the West gets weary of the terror story, develops terrorism fatigue and wants to declare the peak of the threat has passed. This is not true.
The sources of radicalisation and paranoia, especially among a minority of young Muslim men, are as strong as ever. Radical networks and communities are replenishing themselves. Jihadis returning from the Middle East are an added source of recruits, already trained and motivated, for the terror movement. Operationally, the choice of target is becoming more sophisticated. Two months ago a lone-wolf terrorist killed six people on Westminster Bridge and in the environs of the British Houses of Parliament, a target of huge symbolic and political significance.
The choice of Grande’s Manchester concert is psychologically even more telling. Could anything strike greater terror into a Western population than carnage among innocent teenage girls? It is also clear that while counter-terrorism police and intelligence agencies often can detect and foil the efforts of groups and networks, it is exceedingly difficult to thwart the lone wolf. Even if the lone wolf gets radicalised via a social network, if he decides to take action on his own and doesn’t email, text or phone anyone about it, it is exceptionally difficult for the authorities to stop him in time.
It is also the case that terrorist outrages have less obvious political impact than before. British Prime Minister Theresa May was Britain’s longest serving home secretary, the cabinet portfolio with counter-terrorism responsibility. If ever a prime minister was positioned to be the voice of the nation and to offer calm and strong leadership in the face of terror, it is she. And the alternative prime minister, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, is especially weak on all aspects of security.
Nonetheless, as the recent French election showed, and as the tragic murder of pro-Remain British Labour MP Jo Cox, during the Brexit referendum campaign also demonstrated, there is no longer an obvious rally-round-the-flag benefit to an incumbent government from a terrorist attack.
Recent terrorist attacks in the West have not had an obvious political outcome. It may be that electorates have factored terrorism into their political calculations. As long as both sides of politics respond sensibly to particular outrages, they do not necessarily have immediate partisan consequences in mature democracies, of which Britain is surely the premier example.
I have just returned from several weeks in Britain, in which I interviewed on and off the record a wide range of jihadist terror experts in think tanks, as well as senior police figures and security agency personnel. These interviews obviously preceded the Manchester attack, but they all reflected a sober certainty that there were more attacks coming and the threat level had not declined.
Raffaello Pantucci is the director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London and the author of We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists. He works out of an antiseptic, almost spartan little office in the heart of Westminster and, as a veteran and slightly world-weary analyst of the terror scene, offers a downbeat, matter-of-fact assessment. “The terror threat is fairly consistent,” he told me in a long conversation recently. “The threat level has been severe since August of 2014. That means an attack is likely. You get spikes of concerns around things like the (military) campaign (against Islamic State) in Mosul.”
Counter-terrorism efforts have been making some progress in Britain, he says, but even the progress brings with it some new difficulties. “The general trend of (British) people going to Syria (to fight) is way down.” That of course is a good thing. But here is the problem it brings: “What happens to the person whose travel is blocked, who has his passport seized or some such? What happens to that individual? He still has his radical instinct, it doesn’t go away. Can you investigate them thoroughly or channel them into something else?”
In words that may well turn out to be prophetic in respect of the Manchester attack, Pantucci tells me: “Most new attacks are generally from loners. Most of the networks are related to old networks that have been disrupted by the authorities to some extent. The most dangerous are the kids who just bump up on the edges of these networks.”
The dynamics of radicalisation remain an inherently social process, Pantucci says. A charismatic leader radicalises the people around him. Social media shifts that online, but only to an extent. Nonetheless, the police can’t do anything until a clear intention to commit an act of violence is at least expressed. Pantucci believes that about 1000 British people, overwhelmingly young men, went to fight with jihadist groups in the Middle East, although the official figure is a more modest 850 or so. The British authorities make it hard for such people to come home.
There are about three million Muslims in Britain’s population of about 66 million. Pantucci says the consensus figure is that there are about 3000 people that MI5 and counter-terrorist police are actively looking at as supporters in one measure or another of violent jihadism. Two things strike an outsider about the figure of 3000. It’s a very small proportion of Britain’s Muslim population. But it’s a very large number of people for police to keep under proactive, dynamic surveillance.
And of course people flow in and out of that 3000 all the time.
Pantucci thinks that if Islamic State is decisively defeated in the Middle East, this may take some heat out of the domestic terror groups. But, like other analysts, he is also watching the comeback of al-Qa’ida, and its positioning of itself as perhaps likely to become the main jihadist group actively fighting in the Middle East if its rival is eventually expelled from the remaining towns and cities it holds.
Either way, the domestic terror threat may ebb and flow but it will not disappear.
Across the other side of Westminster, Hannah Stuart of Policy Exchange, the leading conservative think tank in Britain, has an equally sombre take on the terror threat in Britain. She recently authored a report that analyses all the jihadist terror convictions and suicide attacks in Britain. It found that 93 per cent of offenders were male and just 7 per cent female. About 72 per cent were British nationals and 55 per cent lived with their own family or at the family home. Almost half were in employment or education, and about 16 per cent were converts to Islam. The most common age at the time of arrest was 22. Only a quarter had a previous criminal conviction, although, three-quarters were previously known to authorities.
The research found highly concentrated geographic centres of jihadist recruits. East London accounted for half of all London-based offenders. Two constituencies in Birmingham provided three-quarters of all Birmingham-based offenders. London, the West Midlands and North West England accounted for nearly three-quarters of all British offenders.
These figures on their own indicate some of the challenges for counter-terrorism authorities. There are communities with a high degree of jihadist sentiment and prone to radicalisation. It is not just isolated individuals being radicalised on their computers at home.
Stuart’s report has also uncovered several disturbing trends.
The age of British jihadists is getting consistently younger. The involvement of women and girls is rising. There is no real correlation between educational deprivation and a tendency to jihadism. Many offenders had at least some tertiary education. In a long discussion in her Policy Exchange office, Stuart told me there were positive and negative developments. “My gut instinct is that there’s more jihadist terror groups now but that we are better equipped to handle it,” she said. “Back in the 1990s no one understood what to do or even that there was a problem.”
Initially, she thinks, British governments and their agencies got the problem hopelessly wrong: “For a time (about a decade ago) the government just had no idea and looked for help to groups that actually had links to the Muslim Brotherhood.” During this period, so long as the specific groups did not advocate direct terrorist violence, the British state thought that such groups, which often espoused a deeply extremist ideology that stopped one step short of advocacy of terrorism, could be part of the solution.
“For a time the authorities virtually outsourced the problem to these groups,” Stuart says. “The default position of people who don’t know much about it is to go to soft Islamists, to the people who shout the loudest.”
That has changed, she says — and entirely for the better. “The British government now doesn’t work with the Muslim Council, who in 2009 went to Istanbul and signed a declaration saying that if the British navy is involved in stopping weapons going to Gaza, then attacks on the British navy are justified.
“One big theme of Policy Exchange is that officials need to exercise due diligence about who they are speaking to. (Former prime minister) David Cameron’s epiphany moment came as opposition leader at the Birmingham Central Mosque, where a leader told him that the 9/11 terror attacks and the 7/7 attacks in Britain had not been carried out by Muslims but by the security services.” From then on Cameron made it a point to attack nonviolent extremism as well as explicit support for terrorism.
In coming days the full details of the Manchester attacks will become known. The British police and counter-terrorism authorities are second to none. They have the closest possible collaboration with their Australian counterparts. This is much, much more than merely the sharing of intelligence. It also involves people embedded in each others’ agencies and constant dialogue about best practice.
Although if anyone will benefit politically from the utter tragedy and madness of this attack, it will be May, it is probable that it won’t lead to a significant change in the opinion polls. But that is not to say the British people are not deeply concerned about security and willing to take political action on it. The vote for Brexit, to leave the EU, was motivated in part by a deep-seated desire that Britain should regain full control of its borders.
Although the majority of terror attacks in Britain are carried out by British citizens, it is nonetheless the case that extremist communities replenish themselves partly through bringing in like-minded people. Moreover the vast influx of North African and Arab irregular migrants into Europe would all ultimately have got the legal right to reside in Britain once they became regular permanent residents of an EU state.
Nonetheless, the most recent polls had been moving against May, although she still enjoys a handsome lead that would see her government returned with an increased majority. This poll movement seems to have been a result of two key factors. First, electors are convinced that Corbyn cannot possibly win, and therefore are tempted to register a by-election-style protest vote, or a vote that could limit the size of the Conservative majority.
And second, although May, like Malcolm Turnbull, has substantially given up on free-market and small-government policies, she is, also like Turnbull, at least trying to rein in the budget deficit, and this means some effective tax hikes and limits on social benefits to affluent middle-class recipients. But Western electorates have shown a sour and cynical mood that believes little that government tells them, except when it is giving them a handful of cash. To confront the terror threat, May needs her people to trust her government. The signs are still that they overwhelmingly trust her more than they trust Corbyn.
The Manchester tragedy may concentrate their minds on these deeper issues. But whoever occupies No 10 Downing Street, they will be fighting terrorism for as far ahead as you can possibly imagine.
In Manchester, we may have seen the future.
And it’s very ugly.
Chris Kenny: “To use “Cultured Reason” against jihadist martyrdom is to piss into the wind,” 20 December 2017, http://thuppahis.com/2014/12/20/to-use-cultured-reason-against-jihadist-martyrdom-is-to-piss-into-the-wind/
Peter Jennings: “Islamist terrorists in the West betray a pattern of behaviour,” 10 January 2015, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/islamist-terrorists-in-the-west-betray-a-pattern-of-behaviour/story-e6frg6z6-1227180118306
David Kilcullen: “Face Our Future: Jihadist Offshoots and Continuing Maelstrom in Middle East,” 2 April 2017, https://thuppahis.com/2017/04/02/face-our-future-jihadist-offshoots-and-continuing-maelstrom-in-middle-east/
Michael Roberts: “The Will to War: Anzac, Mujahid, Kamikaze, Tiger,” 18 May 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/05/18/the-will-to-war-anzac-mujahid-kamikaze-tiger/
“TERROR AUSTRALIS!” 19 September 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/09/19/terror-australis/#more-13703
“Low Cost Precision Weapons: A Bibliography on Suicide Attacks,” 23 June 2012, https://thuppahis.com/2014/06/23/low-cost-precision-weapons-a-bibliography-on-suicide-attacks/
Michael Roberts: “Marginalisation in Britain as Path to Islamic Fervour and/or Cricketing Fervour,” 16 December 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/12/16/marginalisation-in-britain-as-path-to-islamic-fervour-andor-cricketing-fervour/
Michael Roberts: “Lone Cell Assaults: From Boston to Westmead-in-Sydney to the Unabomber. Inspirations and Enabling Conditions in Comparative Perspective,” 19 April 2013, http://thuppahis.com/2013/04/19/lone-cell-assaults-from-boston-to-westmead-in-sydney-to-the-unabomber-inspirations-and-enabling-conditions-in-comparative-perspective/
Michael Roberts: “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday,” 21 July 21 2014, http://thuppahis.com/2014/07/21/where-in-fighting-generates-fervour-power-isis-today-ltte-yesterda/
Michael Roberts: “Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses,” 29 June 2011 http://thuppahis.com/2011/06/29/death-and-eternal-life-contrasting-sensibilities-in-the-face-of-corpses/
READINGS FROM THE NEWSPAPER SITE
- Bomber was son of Libyan refugees JACQUELIN MAGNAY, MANCHESTER
- Northern England terror hotbed EAN HIGGINS
Among the comments in The Australian internet web site
Robert5 HOURS AGO @Axel No.
Muslims are commanded by the Quran to fight against unbelievers until all religion is for Allah. What we do or do not in the Middle East is just a convenient excuse. Remember, the Muslim wave of conquest occurred without the impetus of foreign incursions into Muslim lands.
Muslims were attacking American ships and enslaving their crews and passengers in the Mediterranean in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries – and the reason they gave to American envoys enquiring as to why was that they were commanded to enslave and pillage the infidel by the Quran. Search the report by Thomas Jefferson to the US government on this.
Also Mohammed, their most perfect example of human behaviour, boasted of being victorious through terror.
If you want the root cause, look in the Quran. Read it and take it at face value.
The other thing that must be pointed out is that it is not the West that is killing civilians by the hundreds of thousands in the Middle East. That is other Muslims.
Axel4 HOURS AGO
@Geoff @Axel You can read similar things in other “Holy Texts”.
They (The citizens of the invaded countries) hate us because we invade their countries and not because we are not Muslims. IS did not exist in Iraq or Libya before the destruction of that countries.
You seem to forget the last 1400 years of European bloody history!
Patricia 9 HOURS AGO
- IMO, there are some useful insights from insiders in GB on terrorism in this article.
- But there is in this article a curious degree of a-historicism. There is an utter failure to address the West’s military role in the ME, Libya and Afghanistan as a trigger for terrorism. Christian armies in muslim lands have always created an extremely dangerous fusion between islamic extremism and nationalism.
- In terms of domestic politics, perhaps it is not only the agencies which have grown more perceptive? Perhaps voters have also developed a greater sophistication about terrorism? Perhaps they understand that some Western politicians have sought to exploit terrorism for political power purposes? Perhaps Abbott’s 700 mentions of islamic terrorism and death cults and the like in the space of a couple of months had something to do with it?
- The main MSM messages from Kilcullen are ignored, unfortunately. Don’t name the terrorists. Don’t give them media air time. To which I would add: try them in camera. And when you lock them up for life, make sure it is life, and that they cannot radicalize others while in the slammer or communicate in any way, shape or form with the outside world.
- As a side light, GB admits something like 3.5 million temporary workers in the food industry alone per annum. The hospitality industry the order of magnitude is probably similar but the gross number somewhat less. These are some of the workers that the Brexiteers declared were stealing jobs from Britons. Industry figures are aghast at Brexit because they repeat endlessly that Britons do not apply for such jobs. They believe the food industry, from growing through harvesting through industrial processing to distribution, would collapse without these temporary workers. And that is before British farmers face the 30% tariffs selling their output in the EU.
- In addition there are some 900,000 British pensioners living on the continent where, by EU rules, they access public health facilities. There can be little doubt that the EU will arrange for the free transport of the pensioners to GB where they can throw themselves on the mercies of the NHS and the British climate. (Which, despite the claims of the Brexiteers will not receive the huge amounts of money ‘saved’ by Brexiting.)
- My point is rather general. Voters are taking a good long hard look at Brexit. May will get her mandate but she will also get the millstone of having to make Brexit sort of work for most Brits. The Brexiteers’ arguments about what would happen to people movements has numbers very large and very painful stings in the tail. The first movements have already begun. Fewer temps from the EU are applying, and their general quality is down. The papers in their home countries are reporting increased xenophobic and racist ‘incidents’. The pound is down by 20%. OTOH, thousands of bankers are heading to the EU with several tens of thousands more to come.
- Conflating terrorism with other far Right issues will work for a time. It worked for Trump. It worked with May and the Brexiteers. If nearly worked with the Dutch, French and Austrian far Right candidates. In relations to anti-terrorism as a political vehicle, you can fool all of the voters some of the time, and some of the voters all the time. But you can’t fool all the voters all the time.