The suicide bombing that killed 22 at a concert by singer Ariana Grande earlier this week in Manchester was the second terrorist attack targeting a major British city within two months. On March 22, a 52-year old British convert to Islam drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in central London, killing five. The attacks have intensified public debates over Britain’s multicultural society and foreign policy, particularly as a national election approaches.
Immediate security measures in response to the Manchester attacks have included armed raids across the city and other parts of the country, during which eight men have been arrested so far. Armed police are set to start patrolling trains in a bid to detect and help prevent violent activity for the first time outside the UK’s capital—they have been present on the London Underground since the end of last year.
The attacks come less than three weeks before general elections scheduled for June 8. While official campaigning was halted in the aftermath of the bombing, the responses by many national politicians to the attack were de facto a continuation of their respective parties’ election campaigns. Prime Minister Theresa May’s policies on immigration and Islam, for example, were strongly condemned by leading members of the populist right-wing UKIP party, which is known for its staunch opposition to what they call “uncontrolled” immigration. The party has been struggling to attract voters in recent elections and may hope for a boost from this strategy. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and May’s main opponent in the upcoming election, highlighted the link between British foreign policy and terrorism on British soil in a speech in London on Friday—a claim considered highly controversial by many voters of May’s Conservatives, as well as UKIP.
The responses of local politicians have focused much more on overcoming potential community divisions. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, in particular, was commended for his call not to allow terrorists to create divisions. Many members of the public stressed their solidarity and unity, regardless of religious affiliation or origin. Faith leaders, such as the bishop of Manchester, David Walker, affirmed that at a local level, members of different faiths, as well as those with no religious affiliation, enjoyed good relations and were determined not to let this change. In the same vein, local Islamic institutions strongly condemned the attack; some British Muslims have started a fundraiser for victims of the attack and their families.
These responses reflect the impact the long history of British multiculturalism has had on a societal level in the UK, where liberalism and religious tolerance are much more deeply rooted than in many other Western European countries. For example, while Germany, France, Belgium, and Austria have all either passed or discussed laws banning the Islamic headscarf and/or face veil, in the UK, former Prime Minister David Cameron ruled out such a move.
Nevertheless, racism and Islamophobia continue to be major issues in contemporary British society, which was again reflected in responses to the Manchester bombing. Echoing responses to past European terrorism such as the Paris attacks of November 2015, Muslim leaders expressed concern over retaliatory violence against Muslim individuals and institutions. Indeed, the police are currently investigating an arsonist attack on a mosque in Greater Manchester. Controversial British media commentator Katie Hopkins was also reported to the police and subsequently sacked by her employer, a national radio station, after calling for a “final solution” to Islamist terrorism.
Considering that creating divisions between Muslim and non-Muslim Europeans is a key aim of violent Islamists such as the Islamic State, it seems imperative to focus on strengthening voices calling for unity rather than further fueling division. However, calls for unity and mass vigils following attacks, as heart-warming and important as they may be for public morale in the direct aftermath, are unlikely to be sufficient. When developing inclusive, non-alienating responses to terrorism, it is essential to also reconsider more formal long-term strategies. The UK was one of the first countries worldwide to form a comprehensive, multi-level counterterrorism agenda. In fact, CONTEST, as the strategy is named, is considered one of the most successful counterterrorism strategies in the world; in March 2017, Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon revealed that the British security services had successfully foiled more than 12 terrorist attacks in the past year.
Nevertheless, the branch of CONTEST which focuses on preventing terrorism, PREVENT, has been strongly criticized, including by United Nations representatives and international NGOs such as the Open Society Foundation. Notably, critics point out that despite officially focusing on terrorism in all its forms, the strategy de facto mostly targets Islamist extremism, even though right-wing terrorism continues to be on the rise in the UK, as in other parts of Europe and the West more broadly. The effect is alienation of large parts of Britain’s Muslim population, who feel directly targeted and singled out. This was pointed out by a recent report of the UK’s terror watchdog, which claimed that PREVENT was “sowing mistrust and fear in Muslim communities.” Islamist terrorist organizations in turn exploit such feelings of marginalization and alienation of Muslims in the West in their recruitment and mobilization approaches.
It is highly unlikely that the threat by Islamist terrorism will suddenly cease. Over 800 Britons are believed to have joined the Islamic State alone since 2014. With increasingly successful military counter-strategies in Syria and Iraq, the number of returning members of the organization is expected to increase. The fight against this violence is thus likely to remain a key issue facing societies around the world.
It may be impossible to completely prevent attacks such as the recent Manchester bombing, as there is no such thing as a 100% success rate in counterterrorism, even with the most successful strategy. Nevertheless, enhancing public knowledge about recruitment and mobilization approaches by terrorist organizations can help shape appropriate counter-strategies. We do know that terrorist organizations aim to create division and exploit existing tensions in Western societies. Beyond immediate security measures and party-political discussions on the way forward after an attack, it bears repeating that strengthening societal unity across religious, cultural, and socioeconomic cleavages must be at the heart of strategies aimed at countering the destruction caused by terrorism.