Last week’s attack in Manchester confirms that jihadist terrorism poses the greatest threat to British national security. Much of what has emerged so far about the bomber, Salman Abedi, fits a typical profile: a man in his 20s, raised in an immigrant family in the UK and previously known to the authorities. He spent time in his parents’ native Libya, where his father reportedly fought with the proscribed Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. At home, Abedi is thought to have associated with Islamic State supporters. None of this is surprising: contrary to popular myth, “lone wolf” attacks are rare and familial or friendship ties to extremists are a recurring feature among British terrorism cases.
The planning and facilitation of Islamist terrorism in cities such as Manchester does not happen in a vacuum. Abedi’s actions bring renewed focus to debate over the drivers of radicalisation, which inevitably sees social conditions and grievances – such as foreign policy – pitted against the radicalising impact of an Islamist ideology. While Abedi’s sister claimed he wanted revenge for US airstrikes in Syria, for example, his younger brother – detained in Tripoli last week– said that he knew what his brother ‘was doing there in Manchester’ and, crucially, that they shared an ‘ideology’.
When individuals commit acts of terrorism in the name of Islam, they transgress core human values. In order to enable this, jihadist propagandists offer an alluringly simple world view, one in which the world is divided into lands of Islam and lands of war, with the latter – the West – deeply hostile to Islam and where violent actions against unbelievers are not just religiously justified but at times obligatory. Skilled recruiters, therefore, are those who deliberately foment grievances – perceived or otherwise – and then offer this deeply ideological framework as the true Islamic alternative.
It has emerged that there are 3,000 individuals under surveillance or investigation for possible Islamist terrorism with a further 20,000 known to the security services for their extremist views. It would be unrealistic – not to mention unwelcome – to watch everyone at all times. Instead, the government must redouble its preventative efforts – as the home secretary Amber Rudd has recently pledged – and focus on challenging extremist ideologies of all kinds. Not only can extremism serve as a potential incubator for radicalisation and terrorism, but the divisive rhetoric of Islamists – and increasingly those on the far right – fuels the spread of bigotry, racism and sectarianism.
The current counter-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, is designed to respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and work with institutions where there are risks of radicalisation. Since 2015, specified authorities, including the police, prisons, local authorities, schools and universities, have had a duty to ‘prevent people being drawn into terrorism’. The new duty has its critics. Among the commonly heard arguments are that Prevent promotes a culture of spying on British Muslim communities and that it silences freedom of expression. This ignores both the safeguarding ethos at the heart of the referral process – last year 150 young people were prevented from travelling to Syria – and the commitment to combat extremist ideologies through debate. Among the most vocal opponents to the strategy, however, are extremist groups, such as the prisoner lobby group CAGE, who themselves have a history of promoting at worst jihadist clerics and at best ideas which are antithetical to core British values.
As details of Abedi’s family and background continue to emerge, it is becoming apparent that institutions he frequented could have done more to challenge extremism. At the University of Salford in Manchester, where Abedi studied until last year, the students’ union passed a motion to boycott Prevent, opting instead to “educate” students about the “dangers” of the strategy. Abedi and his family attended Didsbury mosque, some of whose previous imams have been affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood – a global Islamist movement which a 2014 government review found selectively supported “violence and sometimes terror” abroad and whose ideology can run “contrary to our values”.
Successful counterterrorism in the UK relies on effective community engagement – atrocities have been prevented as a result of tip-offs from within British Muslim communities. Members of Manchester’s Muslim communities appear to have reported concerns about Abedi on multiple occasions, only to be ignored. At the same time, a Policy Exchange poll last year found that almost half of British Muslims agreed that they should do more to tackle radicalisation and extremism. Good intelligence and policing can only go so far, and in the long-term much more must be done to ensure not only that concerns are taken seriously, but also that all forms of extremism are identified and challenged.
This article appeared in The Times