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Britain Comes Under Attack at a Turning Point

14 minute read

The device was apparently a crude collage of household items, nuts, screws and bolts packed around 2 lb. of explosives. Like its creator, it appears to have been made in Britain.

At about 10:30 p.m. on Monday, May 22, Salman Abedi carried the homemade weapon into the entrance of Manchester Arena, a concert venue in the heart of Britain’s third largest city, as singer Ariana Grande finished her set.

Saffie Rose Roussos, 8, walked into the spring evening, her mother and sister close by. In videos shared online, the young crowd joined Grande in the chorus of her song “One Last Time,” raising their cell phones as points of light in the darkness. “One more time,” they sang. “I promise after that I’ll let you go.”

What followed was the worst terrorist attack in Britain in more than a decade, with at least 22 people killed and dozens more injured. But it fit a pattern that has become depressingly familiar across Europe over the past two years: a homegrown extremist, with links to jihadism, discovered too late–in this case, a first-generation Briton, 22, born to Libyan parents. The gleeful claim by the Islamic State. The images of the victims, forever smiling, displayed by the media. The cycles of pain, outrage and resilience.

The pain was especially acute this time because many of the victims were children and teenagers, like Saffie Rose, who died in the blast. Many girls were seeing a hero in the flesh for the first time; Grande sings sweet songs of female empowerment, which made the attack an assault on girlhood.

Terrorist attacks have a complicated impact on national psyches, but one common thread that has emerged as ISIS has waged an increasingly violent war on Western Europe is a shift by its governments and citizens to the right. France remains under a seemingly perpetual state of emergency after a series of attacks by Islamic extremists. Even before the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin in December, German Chancellor Angela Merkel began calling for restrictions on Islamic garb, while many in her CDU party would go further, scrapping dual citizenship for children of immigrants.

Now the U.K. is called upon to respond, and at a pivotal moment in its history. A general election is set for June 8, and the largest issue has been how Britain will deal with its epochal departure from the E.U. in 2019. Foreign migration loomed large in the Brexit vote, and the Manchester bombing casts into even higher relief the question of what kind of nation Britain will seek to become.

“The sheer brutality of the Manchester attack will impact very considerably our views of ourselves and our country,” says Charlie Falconer, a Labour Party peer and former Justice Secretary under Tony Blair. “The political effect will be very, very profound.”

As a prominent member of the U.S.-led coalition making air war on the Islamic State, the U.K. has long been high on the group’s list of targets. But unlike fellow coalition member France, the U.K. had, until May 22, avoided a mass killing by ISIS on home soil.

There are reasons for this. One is geography: the ISIS playbook calls for grabbing whatever weapon is at hand, frequently firearms. The Paris attack in November 2015 featured military-grade assault weapons reportedly brought across the Continent from Eastern Europe.

But it’s not as easy to smuggle weapons into the U.K., an island nation–and strict domestic controls on assault rifles and handguns mean relatively few illegal firearms circulate domestically. Britain also has a rigid, well-funded national-security framework that is considered one of the world’s strongest. The U.K.’s counterterrorism budget has been protected from cuts since 2010, and it increased 12.8% in the financial year 2016–17 in response to a “severe” threat level. Mark Rowley, head of national counterterrorism policing, said in March that authorities had foiled 13 terrorism plots in the previous four years–a “whole range from the simple to the complicated.”

The sheer number of plots underscore the magnitude of the threat from within. An estimated 850 people from the U.K. have traveled to Iraq and Syria to fight for jihadist groups, according to the British authorities, and about half of them have since returned to the country.

Among them was Abedi, 22, who died carrying out the Manchester attack. Investigators say he traveled to both Syria and Libya, to which his parents had returned after 20 years in the U.K. During their son’s visit, his parents grew alarmed at his radicalization and reportedly tried to prevent him from returning to England by taking his passport, only surrendering it when he said he wanted to travel to Saudi Arabia.

Islam is Britain’s second largest religion, with over 2.7 million Muslims in England and Wales. That is nearly 5% of the population, higher than the proportion in the U.S. (1%), but lower than that in France (9%) or Belgium (6%). “Our relative integration of Islamic communities is better than in France or Belgium,” Crispin Blunt, a Conservative lawmaker and chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, tells TIME.

Still, better is a relative term. A report commissioned by the government found that the work to integrate societies has been “piecemeal,” author Dame Louise Casey wrote in December 2016. Urban areas like Manchester and Birmingham remained highly segregated, with some wards featuring Muslim populations of up to 85%. Casey found that too little was being done to build cohesive communities.

Even before Manchester, Britain was wrestling with questions of national identity. Reports of hate crimes in the U.K. rose by 41% in the months after the vote amid widespread anti-immigrant rhetoric that echoed the rancorous political debate. Not all of it was leveled at Muslims, but a Policy Exchange survey published in late 2016 found that over a third of British Muslims said racial harassment was a problem. American Muslims saw a similar increase reflected by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, with the number of hate groups targeting Islam rising by nearly a third in 2016, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Overseas, Britain’s Muslim community was sometimes rendered as a cartoon, blown out of rational proportion. It didn’t help that one of the Islamic State’s hall of famers–the executioner Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John” and killed by a U.S. drone strike in 2015–was raised in London. During the U.S. presidential campaign, Trump said that parts of London had become “so radicalized that the police are afraid for their own lives,” a claim that then Mayor Boris Johnson branded “utter nonsense.” In January 2015, Fox News commentator Steven Emerson said that Birmingham–not far from Manchester–had become “totally Muslim, where non-Muslims simply don’t go in.” Prime Minister David Cameron dubbed Emerson a “complete idiot.”

What the country does have are counterterrorism laws that Amnesty International calls “amongst the most draconian in the E.U.” They are built on the Terrorism Act of 2000, which gave authorities broad powers of arrest and pre-charge detention.

That might help explain why, until May 22, most ISIS attacks in Britain had been individual assaults on a far smaller scale than the worst in France and Belgium. The most recent one was a dramatic attack on Westminster Bridge in March by a Muslim convert who drove a car into pedestrians before fatally stabbing a police officer. The attack left five people dead, but the tradition of the stiff upper lip–the Spirit of the Blitz–kicked in soon enough. “The attack in Westminster didn’t have a lasting impact,” Falconer says. “This is different.”

As authorities investigated the Manchester attack on May 23, Prime Minister Theresa May raised the threat level facing the country to “critical,” its highest level, for the first time in a decade. Her government is putting as many as 5,000 troops on the streets to defend concerts, sporting events and other potential targets in the hope of preventing a second-wave attack.

Prime Minister Theresa May informed the nation on May 23 that she had raised the threat level to “critical”Toby Melville—Reuters

When May called a snap general election for June 8, national security was barely on the agenda. With opinion polls showing her Conservative Party with around a 20-point lead, May positioned the vote as an invitation for a mandate. The Tories, as May’s party is known, want to give Britain a clean break from E.U., withdrawing from the single market and allowing it to create a network of new trade relationships. The opposition Labour Party disdains a “hard Brexit” and seeks to retain all possible advantages of E.U. membership.

Looming over that debate is a more existential question: What kind of a country will Britain be after it leaves? The “Brexiteers” on the Tory side are winning this messaging battle, egged on by influential right-wing newspapers like the Daily Mail. They speak of a national renaissance led by the Prime Minister and hold forth about how a Britain freed from the bonds of European bureaucracy can chart its own course back to greatness. Those who see Brexit as an ill-conceived attempt to blow on the embers of the empire have no good answer beyond pointing to the bleak economic headwinds facing the country, and no natural leader to make a positive argument.

With these issues outstanding, the attack in Manchester is unlikely to change the race significantly, according to Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. In Britain, he tells TIME, “it is very rare for events in election campaigns to shift the polls very much, almost whatever they are.”

But what about after June 8, when the Conservative Party is expected to win an increased majority in Parliament? The party’s manifesto, issued before the Manchester attack, talked of considering “what new criminal offenses might need to be created, and what new aggravated offenses might need to be established, to defeat the extremists.”

“What we have found in our research is that in the aftermath of attacks like these, and in order to be seen to do something about terrorism, new policies and practices are almost automatically considered,” says Julia Hall, who covers antiterrorism for Amnesty International. Falconer, the former Justice Secretary, predicts that domestic and foreign policy will turn markedly more conservative under the next government. “There will be further tightening of immigration and much greater expenditure on security and the police,” he says.

However, Amber Rudd, the current Home Secretary, said on May 24 that she believed the police did not require any new legal powers to do their jobs properly. “I am always mindful of making sure that our counterterrorism police have the necessary tools, both in terms of legislation and in terms of money that they need,” she told the BBC, “and they have constantly reassured me that they do.”

It’s a question of approach. “The narrative out there is that these people are power-hungry and desperate to accumulate new powers. That’s not exactly the case,” David Campbell, a senior litigator who acted as the government’s independent reviewer on terrorism legislation until February, tells TIME, and creating them would require new sources of funding. Britain’s counterterrorism laws are already stricter than most. “It’s not easy to see how one could strengthen them without abandoning civil rights, but also abandoning the community policing upon which our security has depended.”

Pointing to Britain’s long history of domestic terrorism by the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s and ’90s, Campbell says, “The way we deal with terrorism is not so dramatic. I think the realization has sunk in … that the best way to fight terrorism successfully is not by overreaction but by bearing down hard on dangerous criminals without alienating the communities [around them].”

Tony Travers, director of LSE London, sees an ingrained cultural attitude at work. “This is a country that produces mugs that say Keep calm and carry on that sell by the hundreds of thousands,” he says. “There is a slight sense of British cultural self-expectation, the sense that when something bad happens, we go to work and we carry on regardless.”

If stiff upper lips endure in the Palace of Westminster, it’s likely to be a different story internationally. Terrorism is a problem across the globe, and every nation has an interest in working together to prevent it. Days after the Manchester attack, Prime Minister May was due to meet her fellow G-7 leaders in Brussels and discuss ways to work together to tackle global extremism.

“The attack does emphasize the need for a new compact, an overarching international and integrated strategy to deal with the causes and symptoms of militant jihadism,” says David Richards, former head of the British Armed Forces, roughly the U.K. equivalent of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. President Trump, Richards says, is already “feeling his way toward something like this” with his call in Saudi Arabia on May 21 for Arab and Muslim nations to join together to combat extremism. “We can only overcome this evil if the forces of good are united and strong,” Trump said, “and if everyone in this room does their fair share and fulfills their part of the burden.”

Trump spoke at the opening of the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology in Riyadh, a place partially funded by the same Saudi government that exports fundamentalist Wahabi ideology to Sunni Muslim countries around the globe. (In its caliphate’s schools, ISIS used Saudi textbooks.) Iran, which Trump criticized at every stop on his Middle East tour as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and instability, has its own official campaign against extremism, dubbed WAVE, for World Against Violence and Extremism. It targets the Sunni nations, led by Saudi Arabia, that account for most of the world’s suicide bombers.

The reality is that when it comes to Islamic terrorism, the Saudis are “both arsonist and firefighter,” according to Brookings Institution expert Will McCants. Riyadh and other Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates offer valuable information to the international intelligence network in which Britain sees almost everything worth seeing. The U.K. is part of the Five Eyes alliance through which the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand share human, signals and military intelligence.

But there’s some question whether British cooperation with the E.U. on intelligence will survive the rupture of Brexit. Christoph Heusgen, the top adviser on security and foreign affairs to German Chancellor Merkel, expects that the British will seek to maintain that cooperation even as they move to break away from the E.U. in other ways. “I don’t know how it will be managed,” he told TIME two days after the attack. “But on the British side, I could imagine that continuing to work with Europe on these security matters will be very high on the agenda. I think it’s in the British interest and in our interest.”

But at least in Germany, the dominant economic power in Europe, some officials fear that the rancor of the Brexit negotiations could poison their cooperation with the U.K. on intelligence sharing, police work and other issues that are vital to countering terrorism. “The relationship in general will come under severe stress,” says Niels Annen, a member of the German parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The famous British spirit of resilience was on full display in Manchester on the night of the attack and in the days after. Taxi drivers–many of them Muslim–offered free lifts to stranded victims. Hotels allowed people caught up in the attacks to stay for free. Manchester United, one of the city’s emblematic soccer clubs, played Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm. “We must not change the way we live our lives and the way we behave,” says Lucy Powell, a member of Parliament from the city. “We need love and unity, and should not be spending time speculating the motives of who perpetrated this.”

Steve Rotheram, who was recently elected mayor of the neighboring Liverpool City region, saw the terrorist attack on Manchester up close. His daughters, ages 19 and 21, were at the Ariana Grande concert, on the other side of the arena from the blast. “They got caught up in the panic,” he tells TIME. “They saw people whose faces were dripping in blood.”

Now he’s working with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham to beef up security and keep their communities safe. Like lawmakers in Westminster, they must figure out where the delicate balance lies between keeping a stiff upper lip and a reluctance to confront pressing issues. “We will make sure all of our contingencies are in place,” he says. “But I’m not sure what more you can do about acts of barbarism.”


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