The Manchester bombing conforms to the pattern of attacks carried out in Europe and the United States over the past few years. Terrorists have increasingly targeted crowded events and venues to produce mass casualties.
Organizations like ISIS, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula would still like to bring down airlines and topple tall buildings. Improved security measures, however, have made hitting such targets increasingly difficult. Terrorists have adjusted.
Over the past two years ISIS operatives and sympathizers have struck restaurants, a night club, concerts, a sports arena, a Christmas market, a Bastille Day celebration, an airport check-in lobby, and a metro station. What do these sites have in common? They are all soft targets, events and venues drawing large, often dense crowds into confined spaces where they can easily be attacked using guns, bombs, or vehicles. Because their warped ideology identifies entire populations as the enemy, extremists make no distinction between men, women or children. By such logic one target is as good as another, provided attacking it kills as many people as possible.
Protecting events and venues is extremely difficult. All evidence suggests that the Manchester Arena had good security. The bomber probably could not have entered the building wearing his suicide vest, but he didn’t have to. He simply waited outside and detonated his device as crowds of concert goers exited the building. Enhanced security often results in target displacement. Secure one area or access point, and the terrorist moves to a more vulnerable one. The result is the same.
In another important respect the concert bombing also conforms to the pattern of previous attacks. The perpetrator was not a refugee or recent immigrant. Salem Abedi was a British subject of Libyan decent born in Manchester and probably radicalized in his own community, a home-grown terrorist like so many of those who have carried out similar attacks during the past three years. He provides one more example of why immigration bans will not prevent terrorism.
Stopping or at least reducing the number and severity of such attacks requires identifying young people vulnerable to radicalization and countering the ideology that teaches them a wanton disregard for human life. That effort begins in the communities in which perpetrators live. Preliminary evidence suggests that Abedi’s neighbors (other British subjects of Libyan decent) had reported his suspicious behavior. Through error or lack of resources the authorities failed to monitor him closely enough. Nonetheless, they had the right approach and should continue it.