The Manchester Bombing and Why the Battle Against ISIS Won't End With Iraq and Syria

People look at flowers in St. Ann's Square, close to the Manchester Arena where a suicide bomber killed 22 people leaving a pop concert at the venue on Monday night. Peter Byrne/PA/Getty

Orlando, Nice, Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Würzburg, Ansbach, Munich, London—and now Manchester. The pattern is becoming depressingly familiar. The news breaks with blurry cellphone footage—pedestrians strolling on a seaside promenade, shoppers enjoying a Christmas market, excited kids leaving a pop concert. Then come the gunshots, a rampaging truck or the jolting explosion—followed by panic, people running, inert bodies. Within the hour, politicians are on the air with a litany of condemnations and condolences.

Even more familiar: the description of the killers—loners, misfits, members of poor Muslim immigrant communities, most of them followers of the death cult known as the Islamic State militant group. Like the attackers who shot up the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015, the suicide bombers who hit Brussels Airport six months later and the perpetrators of at least 15 attacks against the West over the past three years, Britain's Manchester bomber was an alienated, angry young son of immigrants who got wrapped up in ISIS and decided to vent at the world by murdering innocents.

The personal motivations of all these suicide killers vary—the 22-year-old Manchester bomber, Salman Ramadan Abedi, whose parents immigrated to the U.K. from Libya, was reportedly angry at a friend's death last year in what he felt was an anti-Muslim hate crime. But there's one constant element that has the authorities deeply worried—the killers were either inspired by ISIS or trained by the group professionally. Even worse: As Iraqi and Kurdish troops advance on ISIS strongholds in Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, Western security experts fear that the collapse of the jihadi organization is about to spawn a wave of revenge attacks by its scattered members and harder-to-track sympathizers.

Abedi, for instance, had returned from Libya a few days before he detonated a metal-cased bomb hidden in a rucksack, killing 22 people—mostly young girls—at an Ariana Grande concert. It's possible he also visited the ISIS heartland of Syria during the same trip—though the jihadi group maintains a strong presence in Libya too. Either way, the explosive Abedi used in his homemade bomb was similar to one employed in the attacks on Brussels in 2016, which was also organized by ISIS-trained militants.

It's highly unlikely Abedi acted alone, terrorism analysts say. "I can think of very few instances in the last 15 or 20 years where one man alone has built a bomb and then used it," Jason Burke, author of The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy, tells Newsweek. Days after the blast, Manchester police had already arrested at least 10 suspects—including men who allegedly helped cook the homemade explosives in a rented Airbnb apartment—and Libyan police have arrested Abedi's father and brother in Tripoli.

Police operations show that ISIS has had Britain in its sights for some time. Mohamed Abrini, a Belgian of Moroccan descent linked to both the Brussels and Paris attacks, was found with photographs from a visit to the British Midlands—including Manchester and Birmingham—when he was arrested by Belgian police last April.

One reason Britain has avoided a major attack since two suicide bombings by homegrown jihadis killed 52 people on a London bus and the Underground in 2005 has been effective intelligence and cooperation from British Muslims. Security services say that they have foiled 18 serious plots since 2013—and Neil Basu, Scotland Yard's senior national coordinator for U.K. counterterrorism policing, told reporters in April that police around the country were "making arrests on a near-daily basis" to prevent attacks. On April 28, police thwarted two plots in a single day, shooting one female suspect during a dramatic arrest in London.

"As Margaret Thatcher said, the terrorists only have to get lucky once, while the [police] need to be lucky every time," a senior British counterterrorism official who regularly attends briefings in the British Cabinet Office Briefing Rooms (often referred to as COBRA) tells Newsweek, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk on the record. "We have good people in the field. Better community relations perhaps than some of our continental colleagues.… We have good partners keeping us on top of data analysis."

A man is detained by police near Buckingham Palace on May 24 in London. The Changing of the Guard ceremony was cancelled so police officers could be redeployed following an increase in the national security level after the terrorist attack in Manchester. Carl Court/Getty

In Britain, the Government Communications Headquarters's listening station is closely linked to the U.S.'s National Security Agency, which, as Edward Snowden revealed, is a world leader in electronic eavesdropping and spotting suspicious activity and trigger words in vast streams of data. The problem with such a huge, sophisticated net is that it catches minnows as well as sharks; Abedi had been flagged to police as a potential extremist at least two years before he plotted his attack, after being banned from a local mosque for arguing in favor of jihad. But keeping a suspect under surveillance is "incredibly expensive and labor-intensive," says the security official. "You have to be selective. There are loudmouthed guys who are harmless. And then there are quiet ones who come out of nowhere and surprise you."

That vaunted security cooperation between the U.S. and the U.K. took a hit in the wake of the Manchester attack after detailed crime-scene photographs, which British police had shared with the Americans, were leaked to the U.S. press. Manchester's police announced they would no longer be routinely sharing sensitive information for fear of further leaks, though British authorities quickly emphasized this was a local decision that wouldn't affect strategic intelligence, and sharing began again days later.

But a more serious gap in Britain's defenses, Russian officials say, is that intelligence cooperation between London and Moscow has been suspended since defector Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London in 2006 by Russian agents, according to a British judicial inquiry. "Now that ties are suspended, this clearly has made the world more dangerous for all of us," Oleg Morozov, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Russia's Federation Council, tells Newsweek. "We gave the Americans information warning them about the Tsarnaev brothers [who bombed the Boston Marathon in 2013]. But our information was not trusted.… We keep a very close eye on ISIS in Syria, and, I will not conceal from you, we eliminate our citizens who are with ISIS whenever we can, because we know that they will continue their bloody work if they are allowed to come home. But we work separately from the Americans and the British monitoring terror…even though we have a common enemy."

In the U.S., President Donald Trump promised during his campaign to "work with Putin against ISIS"—but so far intelligence sharing between the U.S. and U.K. and Russia remains "frozen," Morozov says.

The bigger question raised by the Manchester attack—and others like it—is whether there's a global solution to these types of assaults. In the aftermath of the most recent outrage, Trump called for terrorists and extremists to be "driven out of our society forever" and said their "wicked ideology must be obliterated." But since the September 11 attacks in the U.S., the Americans have tried two different approaches. Shortly after 9/11, President George W. Bush declared a "war on terror" and invaded countries to prevent jihadis from attacking America—while his successor, Barack Obama, avoided invading countries like Syria for exactly the same reason.

Neither strategy succeeded. France, which stayed out of Iraq (but fought in Libya), has borne a disproportionately large number of jihadi attacks—while both Britain and the U.S. have seen relatively few despite their leading roles in ousting Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein and bombing President Bashar al-Assad's Syria. Trump's solution, so far, has been to attempt to ban travelers from six predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States, even though almost all attacks in the U.S. since 9/11 have been homegrown. He has also signaled his solidarity with Middle Eastern monarchies like Saudi Arabia, which he called a "staunch ally" against terrorism.

Yet none of these approaches has changed the narrative embraced by many jihadis: that the West is murdering innocent Muslims, so true followers of Islam must fight back with force. "You are killing us…. You oppress our mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya," 2005 London bomber Shehzad Tanweer said in his self-described "martyrdom" video. A dozen years later, Abedi's younger sister, Jomana, told The Wall Street Journal that her brother "saw children—Muslim children—dying everywhere…. He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge." The image of a crusading, Islamophobic West remains a staple of ISIS propaganda, independent of the facts.

Members of the Manchester Dawoodi Bohra Muslim Community pay their respects to victims of the Manchester attack in St. Ann's Square on May 24 in Manchester. Christopher Furlong/Getty

Absent a real effort to combat that narrative, ISIS seems to have caught the imagination of a few specific Muslim communities around Europe. The Brussels suburb of Molenbeek and Düsseldorf, Germany, bred and harbored cells of jihadis who mounted attacks across Europe last year. Another is Manchester's Moss Side. Two of Jomana Abedi's schoolmates from Manchester's Whalley Range high school—then-16-year-old twins Zahra and Salma Halane—ran away from home in 2015 to move to Syria, tweeting news daily of their lives as jihadi brides. A subsequent investigation by the Manchester Evening News revealed that authorities had flagged 350 local children as at risk of being radicalized. The brother of the fugitive twins, Ahmed Halane, 24, was at the city's Burnage Academy for Boys with Abedi—and has been banned from Britain since last year for extremist ties.

Another report, by The Guardian, revealed that at least 16 convicted or deceased Islamists, who had either joined or attempted to join militant groups or died fighting for ISIS, had lived within 2.5 miles of Moss Side. The most recent Moss Sider to die for jihad was a Manchester-born Muslim convert, Jamal al-Harith (born Ronald Fiddler), 50, who blew himself up in a suicide attack near Mosul in February. Harith had been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay and was paid £1 million ($1.3 million) by the British government in compensation after his release in 2004.

Despite the prevalence of radicalism in the area, local Muslim leaders have expressed shock that one of their own was involved in the most recent attack. "That a bomb of this kind has been prepared here in Manchester, I just feel really sick and disturbed that such a thing could be happening in some house that I could be living next to," Musa Naqvi, secretary-general of the Manchester Council of Mosques, tells Newsweek. A former manager at the city's Didsbury Mosque, where Abedi and his family worshipped, recalls Abedi as coming from a disciplined and well-behaved family. "They were some lovely kids. They were always with their dad, and I was always so impressed with them," the manager tells Newsweek, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals.

But he adds that Abedi, the second youngest of the family's four children, had become at intervals withdrawn and then hot-tempered in his teenage years. He described how at the gym he attended at the local Hough End Leisure Centre he was known to be a hostile character. "He didn't like to talk to anybody, but when he did he was really very aggressive," the mosque manager says.

The deeper issue, of course, is that open societies have no real defense against terrorist tactics. As Bruce Hoffman writes in his classic study Inside Terrorism, they are the one foolproof weapon of the weak against the strong—and have plagued the civilized world since Joseph Conrad wrote about the shocking new scourge in The Secret Agent. The objective is not just to kill but "to create power where there is none, through the publicity generated by the violence."

The questions raised by the Manchester attack are in many ways the same ones raised by the Irish Republican Army and the Red Brigades for previous generations—even though the ideological and logistical battlefield has shifted largely to cyberspace: Are Western countries willing to sacrifice basic democratic values—by employing measures such as detention without charge—in order to protect themselves? And how will they deal with the Muslim communities within their borders that continue to hatch extremists?

ISIS's often-stated aim is to disrupt and destroy the decadent West to make way for an Islamic theocracy. And the more serious danger to democracy comes from within. A basic principle of asymmetric warfare is to panic a stronger opponent into overreacting. But like Orlando, Paris and other Western cities that have reckoned with ISIS attacks, Manchester showed resilience and dignity as it mourned. It also showed the West will not crumble as easily as its enemies imagined.

Additional reporting by Conor Gaffey, Jack Moore and Callum Paton.