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Thoughts on the Manchester Arena suicide attack 

Fiona Petty, who works in the field of preventing the radicalisation of vulnerable people, reflects on some of the lessons from the Manchester Arena suicide bomb attack

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Tributes to the victims of the suicide bomb attack after an Ariane Grande concert in Manchester. The worker bee is one of the best-known symbols of Manchester, adopted during the Industrial Revolution. Charlotte Campbell, the devastated mum of terror attack victim Olivia, 15, had a bee tattooed over her heart and hundreds of people have been getting tattoos of the bee to show their solidarity with those affected (Image: Transport Pixels/Flickr)

In his cinematic masterpiece, The Power of One, director John G Avildsen sought to portray the evil power of racism through cleverly exploited film techniques. The film is set in Johannesburg in South Africa. Its narrative is all about the segregation of communities and how one individual can bridge that divide – creating an example in which communities can be harmonised to create an integrated society.

In one scene, covering the funeral of someone who bridged the divide created by the abomination of apartheid, the director pans back to show the reality of segregation, even in death. Burials are grouped along racial lines. That sense of racism and of communities in society being marginalised and isolated from one another is a metaphore for a wider and more lasting problem in western societies.

Despite talk of multiculturalism, communities remain divided. In this crucible individuals are driven to acts of violence. That same pathway drove Salam Abedi to walk into the foyer of the Manchester Arena and kill himself. It was an act of mass murder conducted by a single individual. One immediate lesson is obvious. The power of one can also be unleashed to divide rather than unite society. For those charged with developing responses to crisis this is an important exemplar.

In the wake of this attack on Tuesday May 23, 2017, the British Prime Minister raised the threat level to critical. The threat had not been raised to its highest level since the July 2005 bombings in London, thus sending the message that another attack was imminent. In July 2005, four Islamic extremists orchestrated and planned an attack in the middle of the capital to create as much carnage and mayhem as they could. And they did.

Two weeks later a further attack and then the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes created an atmosphere in London not seen since the days of the Irish Republican Army. Commuters carried on going to work on the tube, on the bus and living their lives in the capital city as they had done so before. Sadly, for all those affected directly or indirectly by these events, life does go on.

Over ten years later, one 22-year-old male, wired with a suicide vest, blew himself up with the intention of killing and injuring. He succeeded. The threat level was hastily raised, troops were deployed on the streets, quickly followed by the sight of armed policeman guarding major public events.

The uncomfortable fact is that one person can cause death, terror and fear among civilians living in a time of peace in a so-called western civilised society imbued in core values and democracy. That one person can rock this foundation and make us all question the nature of our fears is astonishing at best, and intentional at worst. The act itself was bad enough, but what ensues is just as bad and is overlooked.

The general public may not know or understand what a threat level means. Many of them do now. I have witnessed troops on the streets unarmed and clearly employed to give the public comfort. They can go about their daily business assured that the government has a handle on the situation. If there were another attack the military would be, sadly, trying to help those affected or, who knows, killed as a result too.

Within days of the raised threat level, armed police were seen at sporting events. This begged the question as to what they could actually do with their guns once a suicide bomber had detonated a device. Even recognising someone before they discharged their device in the midst of a large crowd would be hard. Profiling potential suspects is not that easy.

The deployment was a case of attempting to shut the stable door after the terrorist had bolted. But once again the message to the general public was that of safety and protection – a show of defiance against an unknown enemy.

However, this is not a traditional enemy that we are confronted with. This flies in the face of anything we have known. Even historic battles such as Rorke’s Drift in 1879 – when 150 soldiers fought to defend a supply station from 400 Zulus – the soldiers were at least aware of the devastating numbers they were about to face. Preparations could be made in an attempt to save the station. Bromhead urged his meagre numbers to be prepared and face the might of the enemy, knowing they had done all they could.

Nelson knew his enemy during the battle of the Nile. During the Second World War, spies and surveillance equipment and all that Enigma brought us were used to assess the enemy and prepare for what was to come. And this intelligence was invaluable. We now have the Geneva Convention, finally updated in 1949 and internationally agreed in 1977, as a moral code for the conduct of war. It may be flagrantly abused, but it is there and prosecutions are made as a result.

But here is the rub. So-called Islamic State (IS) is not a state in the traditional sense. It is not a country we can flatten with bombs and pummel with air power. It is not a state at all. Yet IS wishes to create a new state, not protect an existing one, and that is an anathema to traditional warfare. IS is not protecting land or territory, it is protecting what it sees as a form of Islam that has been marginalised and criticised by the West by actions and opinion.

To murder 22 people at a concert in a busy city is its form of warfare. For this reason, it creates fear and quite obviously a reactive response to the actions of one man. The Geneva Convention is clearly not even on its radar, let alone in the organisation’s conscience. Further arrests have been made since Manchester but with 23,000 jihadist fighters now in the UK and the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd stating that not all those that may have been accomplices to 23rd have been found, hardly makes for a country returning to ‘normal’. We have no way of preparing for the unknown suicide bomber, or knife attacker, or even like Khalid Masood, those using vehicles as weapons.

MI5 states that Abedi was known. I would argue that on a list of 23,000 he was not a priority, which merely confirms MI5 must have far more ‘significant’ people on its radar who it is watching and just waiting to arrest at the appropriate time to ensure a conviction.

So, what now? It is clear intelligence and police can only go so far. We have people in the midst of our communities – possibly even living next door – who may be willing to destroy lives to achieve their heaven by killing themselves. Like it or not, and uncomfortable as it, the fact is that one person can send ripples of fear through our own homes and force a government to react with all that it has at its disposal – however ineffective it would be.

Prevention is better than cure. We owe it to our children, our neighbours and our families to be vigilant and report even the smallest thing as it could so easily be something more. If it offends some, then we must be resilient enough to listen to our conscience. If, as society every one of us agreed to a strategy of harnessing communities and talking to each other it just may make a difference. The Prevent Programme is criticised and seen as intrusive, but until someone with a better idea comes forward it is here to stay.

The reality is we are in no way able to predict what is now going to happen. Households around the country, quite rightly, trust in the emergency services to protect them, and in the intelligence services to offer information of what is to come. Sadly, the former is overwhelmed and underfunded. The latter is waiting to see if it is their turn to face the horrors.

In the words of Sun Tzu: “If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles. He also said: “If you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperilled in every battle.”

Sadly, it seems we are. 

Fiona Petty, 16/06/2017
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