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Manchester attack: a sophisticated operation that increases pressure on security services

Police on the scene in Manchester. PA/Peter Byrne

Greater Manchester Police force has confirmed that the explosion in the foyer of Manchester Arena on May 22 is being treated as a “terrorist incident”.

And while the force’s chief constable Ian Hopkins said the attack was carried out by a single individual; he added that the focus of the investigation was to establish whether the individual was acting alone or as part of a network. Hopkins said:

The attacker, I can confirm, died at The Arena. We believe the attacker was carrying an improvised explosive device which he detonated causing this atrocity.

A 23-year-old man has since been arrested in connection with the attack.

Theresa May, the British prime minister, has said her thoughts are with the victims in what she described as an attack designed to cause “maximum carnage”. Following a meeting of the UK government’s emergency Cobra committee on Tuesday morning, May said the attack stands out for its “appalling, sickening cowardice”.

Monitoring the threat

While details are still emerging, the nature of the attack is worrying for the security services. Supporters of the so-called Islamic State have celebrated the attack on social media, warning that more attacks in Europe may follow, and IS belatedly claimed it was behind the attack via jihadist channels. IS frequently does this after attacks, even when there is little evidence of an orchestrated plot.

Recently there have been an increasing number of terrorism-related arrests in the UK, and security sources have warned of the growing threat from jihadist groups. In 2015, MI5 and anti-terrorism police were monitoring an estimated 3,000 home-grown extremists. More than half were on watch lists in London, while other clusters were located elsewhere in the south-east of England, the West Midlands and Manchester.

Security sources are also increasingly concerned about the prospect of jihadists returning from Iraq and Syria as the Islamic State’s hold in the region collapses. As many as 350 fighters are thought to have returned to the UK from these conflicts so far.

In 2015, a Pakistani student, Abid Naseer, was jailed after plotting to copy the IRA’s 1996 Manchester bombing. Security sources estimated that hundreds would have been killed in the planned attack on the Arndale shopping centre, using a car bomb and suicide vests.

That this is an apparent suicide bombing shows some form of complexity. Recent attacks in the UK have been relatively crude, low-tech incidents involving knives and vehicles. In 2010, Labour MP Stephen Timms was stabbed by a radicalised woman, and fusilier Lee Rigby was brutally murdered by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale in Woolwich, London, in 2013. That incident happened four years to the day of the Manchester attack.

The use of explosives will be a real concern here. Even a simple device requires a degree of planning. Chris Philips, former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, has already described the Manchester Arena attack as a considerable “step up” on previous attacks. In the next few weeks, investigators will be trying to determine how the individual made an improvised device. Did the attacker make the explosives themselves – as initial reports seem to suggest – or were they provided with one? These are questions that need to be answered.

Resources under pressure

Establishing whether the individual was alone or part of a wider network is also vital. Extremists acting on their own, without the support of a wider network – so-called “lone wolf” extremists – are hard to detect. Online jihadist propaganda urges followers to carry out attacks wherever they can – at home or overseas – no matter how low-tech they are.

In 2013, MI5 director general Andrew Parker said his greatest concern was self-motivated terrorists “launching sudden, unsophisticated” attacks in the UK. Intelligence insiders nicknamed self-motivated extremists “Nike terrorists” after the sports giant’s motto “Just do it”.

Theresa May gives a statement after the attack. PA/Lauren Hurley

Watching extremists is a growing headache for the UK’s security and intelligence services. Despite increased investment, choosing who to make an “essential” target and who to judge as a lower priority remains a problem. MI5’s resources, like those of counter-terrorism police, are finite. Two of the 2005 7/7 London bombers, Mohammad Sidique Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, came to MI5’s notice but were “parked up” (not treated as urgent) because of other imminent threats.

Figures released by the UK parliament in 2015 showed that MI5 had just over 4,000 staff, with 64% of resources devoted to international-related counter-terrorism. Even adding Britain’s growing anti-terrorism police, the number is still limited.

Once identified, keeping tabs on terrorist suspects requires round-the-clock surveillance. Former French counter-terrorism chief Louis Caprioli once remarked that 18 to 20 officers were needed per suspect.

The Manchester Arena attack is worrying because of its deadliness. Rather than knives or vehicles, the use of explosives adds to the complexity of the threat in the UK. Establishing how the perpetrator was able to create an explosive device, tracing their contacts and understanding their motives are all issues for the UK’s security and policing bodies to investigate.

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