The world has turned a dangerous corner. While certainly the high-water mark (so far) as terrorist barbarism, the May 22 suicide bombing at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England by radical Islamic extremist Salman Abedi against innocent civilians leaving a concert by pop star Ariana Grande has deeper and more sinister implications.
This attack was perpetrated against children – the first time children have been the primary targets of Islamic extremists in their attacks against the West.
And yes, I believe it was absolutely intentional. Perhaps the jihadist started out by targeting the concert venue simply because it represented a large group of potential victims in a relatively confined space – crowds of unprotected civilians are the terrorist targets of choice these days – but this attack was different. By all accounts, the terrorist arrived at the venue as the concert was ending and positioned himself outside the arena. People leaving the concert walked right past him, so he had plenty of time to see that a large proportion of the people he was intending to kill were children and adolescents.
Knowing this, he still made the conscious, intentional decision to detonate his bomb.
Children have been the victims of past terrorist attacks. Eight children, ranging in ages from 2 years to 11 years, died in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Ten children were killed and more than 50 injured in the July 14, 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, France. Throughout parts of Africa and Southwest Asia, the targeting of children by terrorists is well documented:
- In December 2014, Taliban fighters attacked an Army-operated school in Pakistan and killed 132 children, the youngest victim a 5-year-old girl;
- Boko Haram is responsible for killing at least 120 children in three separate attacks on schools in 2013 and 2014, as well as the highly publicized kidnapping of more than 270 girls (of whom more than 100 are still unaccounted for) from their boarding school; and
- On September 1, 2004, more than 1,000 people were taken hostage by a Chechen separatist group at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia (Russia). Two days later, in what has since become a very controversial operation, Russian security forces moved in in force and attempted to rescue the hostages and end the siege. Of the more than 330 victims killed, 186 were children.
Having said that, the attack in Manchester stands alone in its depravity. In Manchester, children and adolescents appear to have been the primary targets. In the attacks on the World Trade Center and in Nice, children were injured or killed because they were part of the crowd targeted by the terrorists. The Manchester attack seems to show children were injured and killed in spite of the fact the terrorist knew they were children. He knew he was about to kill children and he did it anyway. The death of a child is always a tragedy, regardless of whether he or she was the intentional target, but now that children appear to be the specific target, our already scary world just got a lot scarier.
Wherever you live, think about all the events and institutions that are not just child friendly, but child-centric. Zoos, playgrounds, schools, school buses, day care centers, circus performances, large-scale entertainment events based on popular children’s TV programming, parades; it’s a long list.
An equally disturbing (and equally disgusting) possibility is that the attack targeted girls and women. Of the 13 victims identified thus far, ten are women or girls. A large majority of Ariana Grande’s fan base consists of young women and teenaged or pre-teen girls – a fact that would certainly have been known to someone who had been born into and grown up with modern pop culture. Terrorist groups in other parts of the world have regularly targeted women and girls. The Boko Haram kidnapping referenced earlier was directed specifically against girls, and groups like the Taliban have regularly attacked schoolgirls with weapons ranging from firearms to acid to poison gas.
Not surprisingly, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. A widely publicized statement attributed to the group on the message app Telegram stated, in part, “one of the soldiers of the caliphate placed explosive devices in a gathering of crusaders in the middle of the British city of Manchester.”
ISIS is being defeated on the battlefield, so it’s not hard to understand why they’d claim responsibility for this latest heinous act. Struggling to maintain the image of success, they’d probably claim responsibility for a car accident or a sunburn if they thought it would further their cause. Yet, the ISIS claim is not outside the realm of possibility. The neighborhood where the terrorist had lived, and in which several subsequent counterterror raids have been conducted, is well known to British law enforcement and intelligence agencies because several of its denizens have left for Syria and Iraq to fight for ISIS. Libya, a country to which the suspect is reported to have recently traveled, has been a base for ISIS, not Al Qaeda operations, since the Libyan Civil War and the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.
And what about the jihadist? In spite of all the ink that has been spilled, all the media attention that has been focused — and all the political capital that has been expended on the possibility of terrorists entering the country in the guise of refugees — Salman Abedi, the jihadist who committed the Manchester atrocity had lived his entire life in England. He was born in Manchester to parents who had fled Libya years earlier. There is evidence he had recently travelled to Libya, but by and large it appears as though he spent his life surrounded by people who, if the most recent information is to be believed, were oblivious to the fact he had been radicalized in their very midst. As the title of this article suggests, he’s more than a home-grown or imported terrorist – he’s a “hometown terrorist."
If this was an ISIS-inspired or ISIS-directed attack, it marks a dangerous and significant shift in their focus and operational methodologies. In a previous article I categorized ISIS as “short-attention-span terrorism.” Their focus was on immediacy. The hallmarks of an ISIS attack are weapons of opportunity and targets of opportunity, with its followers using the weapons they had at hand to attack whoever they could. Yet, the Manchester attack falls outside that paradigm. This isn’t someone who read a propaganda piece, jumped in his car, and plowed into the first crowd of people he saw.
No, this attack was planned well in advance. It takes time (and knowledge, and technical skill) to construct a bomb. The concert was advertised weeks, probably months in advance. He didn’t try to penetrate or defeat security – he let his victims come to him – and he got a good look at them before he killed them. I just don’t believe he took the time to learn how to build a bomb, and then actually built the bomb with the intention of hanging on to it until he found a suitable target. This attack may well represent the emergence of an ISIS with the intention to target a specific event (or location, or individual), the capacity to formulate a long-term plan of attack and the persuasive power to convince someone to execute that attack against the town of his or her birth and the people he or she grew up alongside.
What’s next? It’s hard to say. After all, we have a long list of things we thought terrorists either couldn’t do or wouldn’t dare do. Terrorists wouldn’t dare attack the United States (like they did on September 11). Terrorists don’t have the capability to attack a military installation (Fort Hood, Texas and Chattanooga, Tennessee). They’ll never be able to bring down another airliner (Metrojet Flight 9268). Airport security is too tight – they’d never be able to attack an airport (Los Angeles, California; Glasgow, Scotland; Brussels, Belgium and Istanbul, Turkey). Sure, it’s bad overseas, but we’ll never see terrorism in American neighborhoods (Boston, San Bernardino, Garland, Texas, etc.). What won’t they “dare” target next?
[Editor’s not: See former Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Deputy Administrator John Halinski’s exclusive Homeland Security Today report, Curbside Vulnerability: No-Man’s Land’ Outside of Airport Security Lacks Personnel, Adequate Protective Structures and Security Technology]
The million-dollar question, of course — the question on which lives depend – is, “how do we stop this from happening again?” Since the Manchester attack, the news has been filled with TV reporters interviewing concert promoters, venue managers and elected officials about security at large events.
Their answers are predictably similar, and usually involve more police or security officers, investments in surveillance equipment, metal detectors and the like. One facility manager touted his venue’s emphasis on locking the doors during events, which might prevent someone from entering the event without a ticket, but would have had absolutely zero effect at the Manchester concert. An elected official even mentioned how the various ambulance districts conduct a joint annual mass casualty exercise. That’s obviously a best practice, but it deals with the response to a mass casualty event that has already taken place and has almost nothing to do with prevention or interdiction.
We must change our focus. More boots on the ground, more and better surveillance and investments in improved physical security measures are all worthwhile, but they fail to address the issue that has been plaguing us for decades; no matter how far out you expand the “secured” perimeter. There will still be people outside it and vulnerable. If, for example, you are in a crowd of hundreds waiting in line to go through the metal detectors at a baseball game, are those metal detectors doing you any good? Ever count the backpacks being carried by people waiting in line to go through a TSA checkpoint at an airport?
We must get serious about intelligence gathering and intelligence evaluation. We all have a very personal stake in this. It’s a common perception that, when bad things happen, they usually happen to other people in other places. But those other places and other people are being affected more often and more seriously. To another person, you might be that “someone else” who lives “somewhere else.”
If someone in your town or neighborhood is plotting an attack, where do you think that attack will happen? The Boston Marathon bombers lived in Boston. The Fort Hood jihadist attacked the Army base where he was stationed. The San Bernardino jihadi attacked his own workplace and the Manchester jihadi attacked his own hometown.
See the pattern? Disasters begin and end locally. It’s time to start thinking of it as not just homeland security, but HomeTOWN Security.
Jim Sharp, MPCP, is Vice President & Chief Training Officer at Aegis Emergency Management. He recently wrote the Homeland Security Today report, Special Analysis: ISIS? Al Qaeda? How They Differ and Why it Matters.