Main Image Credit Armed police stand guard at Manchester Arena after Salman Abedi's suicide bomb attack during a Ariana Grande gig. Courtesy of PA Images.
A week after the atrocity in Manchester, it is now possible to draw some preliminary conclusions: there clearly was a breakdown in the intelligence flow that led to suicide bomber Salman Abedi slipping through the net; there are enduring questions about the UK’s Prevent anti-terrorism strategy; and, finally, there are the weaknesses of ‘soft targets’ that such an attack invariably expose.
It is, of course, impossible, without full access to information, to properly understand exactly the nature of the intelligence breakdown that led to last week’s suicide attack on an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
Still the fact that the bomber, Salman Abedi, was flagged up to authorities a number of times, by locals in Manchester, was travelling back and forth to a country that is a warzone and came from a family with strong militant pedigrees all indicate – without the benefit of hindsight – that he was someone who should have attracted attention.
If, as suggested, he was someone who had featured in previous investigations but was sidelined in favour of what were deemed to be more menacing targets, then the attack in which 22 people were killed and dozens wounded highlights what for the intelligence services remains a perennial question: how do you determine who seems more menacing when resources are limited?
This is not only a difficult calibration to make, it is also not a way to remove someone from concerns altogether. For, as we have seen repeatedly, individuals will sometimes rise back out of this pool of downgraded threats to pose an immediate danger.
And the challenge is immense. According to Security Minister Ben Wallace, there are about 20,000 in this larger pool of people who are not seen as an immediate danger but who, like Abedi, can suddenly become one.
What can be done to manage this problem? Additional resources would help, as well as new technologies such as super computers using artificial intelligence to manage the challenge through data-crunching looking for particular patterns of behaviour. Another method is to continually challenge previous assessments about the security risks that certain individuals may pose, a determination which is bound to shift over time.
However, the principle of proportionality also has to be borne in mind: having lots of security forces chasing those individuals not only requires more resources than are currently available, but may also end up exacerbating the very problem that they are trying to manage.
Other, more extreme ideas have been advanced: internment or enhanced restrictive movement orders. The first proposal is so clearly counterproductive that it bears no consideration; internment in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s became part of the problem, rather than the solution to terrorism troubles.
The second proposal – house arrests – has greater value, except in that it does not necessarily reduce the burden on security officials. An individual who has been placed under house arrest is not actually being dealt with; rather, he or she is being put in a very publicly visible ‘holding pattern’.
Similarly, excluding people from the UK – either through passport denial or exclusion orders – is not actually dealing with the challenge; it simply postpones a determination, and pushes the individual on to another country to be dealt with.
A proportion of the work managing this pool of 20,000 ‘lower-grade’ suspects will come under the contentious Prevent strategy of counterterrorism activity. And this raises another strand of debate to emerge from the Manchester atrocity: how to reform Prevent.
One aspect that should be undertaken is to separate out the different strands of the strategy. The work of managing dangerous offenders or suspects clearly needs to stay attached to the security realm, possibly through the creation of a new specifically developed and tailored service, modelled on the probation service.
Combining probation, welfare, police and intelligence, the new agency could be staffed by individuals who are each managing a specific case-load of former offenders or suspects.
Each case will require a different sort of engagement, but this may provide a way of both keeping an eye on such cases while also focusing on trying to get them on a different path.
A version of the Channel programme, which provides early support to individuals who are at risk of being drawn into terrorism, could be used; this will be a way of providing an individually tailored ‘light touch’ over-watch.
But other parts of the Prevent that are focused on more forward-looking efforts to steer people away from radical paths before they get on to them, should instead be moved firmly out of the criminal space.
Prevent is intended to be about keeping people away from ever getting to terrorism, and this means, among other measures, actually keeping them out of the criminal justice arena. Consequently, it would seem imperative that these programmes are not handled by a security department such as the Home Office.
Finally, there are some very understandable questions about the fact that the bomber was able to walk his device into a crowded space and kill so many. Most arenas nowadays are heavily guarded and people are subject to bag checks on entry.
Clearly, some additional thought must be given to reviewing entry and exit points to such sites, with the usual difficulties of agreeing where to draw the ultimate line of the security cordon.
Much work has gone into managing security in crowded spaces: the lessons learned need to be applied more rigorously and around the entire country. Sports events or concerts that by their very nature aim to be open and accessible will continue to pose a potential problem.
It is unlikely that this will be the last terrorist attack the UK faces. Coming during an election cycle, however, this incident offers an occasion for both introspection and new ideas as future governments continue to confront the challenge.
Senior Associate Fellow