Twenty-two people were killed and at least 59 wounded in last night’s terrorist attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. England’s third most populous city, Manchester is known for its soccer teams, its social vibrancy, and its diverse architecture.
With the passage of time, the city’s response to last night’s mayhem will surely reinforce Manchester’s positive reality. But it will take time. The scale of loss, many of the wounded are in critical condition; the target, a large social gathering; and the identities of the dead, over a dozen children and young adults, will pain Britain’s psyche.
Still, the key to public reassurance is an efficient investigation and response. Here are three connected considerations.
Who is the attacker?
According to reports, the British government knows the bomber’s identity. That’s unsurprising. As I noted following the March car and knife attack in London, “British counterterrorism authorities retain a highly advanced database of jihadists and their sympathizers.” The attacker was almost certainly on the intelligence radar. But the fact that his bomb was so well-constructed and effective should alarm British authorities. In recent years, the U.K. has successfully disrupted numerous explosive-centric terrorist plots. The British have done so by employing sensitive intelligence tools to identify an individual’s bomb-making aspirations and his or her purchasing of explosive precursors.
Clearly, however, those tools didn’t work this time. That’s not to say that MI5 or the North West Counter Terrorism Unit dropped the ball. But the attack does indicate trained skill and practiced operational security. I think it is likely the attacker received training abroad. That leads us to the next question.
Is an international terrorist organization responsible?
Daesh (also known as ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the attack. While al-Qaeda–aligned cells have previously attracted counterterrorism concern in Manchester, Daesh’s claim here is credible. First, Daesh’s claim of responsibility was rapid but also specific in detail. Second, the explosive device(s) suggests a TATP-base-plus-shrapnel design similar to those used in the Daesh attacks on Brussels and Paris (the serious and critical status of many of the wounded also points toward a sophisticated bomb). Third, Daesh has prioritized attacking Britain and has invested significant resources towards that end.
As authorities run down the attacker’s friends and hangouts, expect more arrests today and tomorrow.
Moreover, while it is possible that the bomber was acting alone, that is far from certain. We know that Daesh utilizes compartmented cells so as to mitigate intelligence attention. And the complexity involved here does, at least at first glance, suggest a support network. There are indications that Daesh operates such networks in the U.K. Correspondingly, as authorities run down the attacker’s friends and hangouts, expect more arrests today and tomorrow. The British will want to know if the bomber had help. Organizational involvement will also be indicated if Britain’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center raises the national alert level to critical.
How will Britain respond?
At the domestic level, the U.K. has immediately increased police counterterrorism deployments. And fortunately, British intelligence services are far better integrated than their U.S. counterparts. But if the investigation points to a broader cell, the U.K. will likely need to forward deploy troop-size elements of British Special Forces to areas outside of London. Beyond the capital, British armed-police capabilities are relatively weak (most British police do not carry firearms).
It is abroad, however, where we may see the most visible U.K. reaction. While British Special Forces are already operating in Syria, the U.K. has not yet deployed conventional forces to fight Daesh in the vein of the U.S. deployments around Raqqah. That might now change. British Army light-infantry forces (such as 16 Air Assault Brigade) would be well placed to support the retaking of Daesh’s capital. And because of the grotesque quality to this attack, public support for such deployments will be significant.
Regardless, we’ll learn a lot more over the next 24 hours.