Sophistication Of Manchester Bomb Implies There Was Help

The ability to create the bomb and know where to plant the explosive outside Manchester Arena, means the assailant had help

A woman looks at flowers for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack — REUTERS
May 25, 2017 at 1:14 PM ET

LONDON – Days after a first-generation British man from Libyan parents set off explosives at a pop concert in Manchester, England, the initial signs that this was the work of a “single terrorist,” as Prime Minister Theresa May put it in those early hours afterwards, is now evolving into a picture of a larger network of accomplices, and an expectation from authorities that another attack is imminent.

Police identified the Manchester assailant as 22-year-old Salman Abedi. The Islamic State claimed one of its “soldiers” placed explosives at the scene, but Abedi is believed to have been killed in the bomb that hit concertgoers as they streamed out of the exits of Manchester Arena on Monday, mainly young girls still buzzing from seeing American pop star Ariana Grande in concert.

People who ran to help describe pulling nails out of the faces of the victims, some as young as 8 years old. Authorities said 22 people were killed, with most of them being children. The sophisticated bomb was the deadliest attack on British soil since July 7, 2005, when three suicide bombings struck trains on the London Underground and killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds others.

It’s becoming rapidly clearer that this was not a “lone wolf” incident, and that the group behind the act stretches beyond British borders. Analysts say that the evolution from militant attacks using knives or machetes, to more sophisticated weaponry, implies that more resources and people are involved.

“The choice of venue, force of the blast and the age of the assailant certainly suggest that he belonged to a network of at least a basic level of operational sophistication,” said Jim Arkedis, a terrorism analyst in Washington, D.C., who worked on the 2005 London bombings at the Department of Defense. “They would have had to surveil the concert venue to know the security weaknesses so the bomber could enter. The force of the bomb was significant, you don’t kill and injure that many people if you’re a complete amateur. It suggests that there was a bomb-maker who had some experience producing devices.”

Arkedis said the men who carried out the London bombings used triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, a highly-volatile fertilizer based substance, and wouldn’t be surprised if the people behind the Manchester bombing did as well.

“It requires practice to make correctly, but not necessarily a PhD in chemistry or a connection to a huge network,” Arkedis noted. “That’s why it’s used so frequently.”

A New York Times look at the backpack and remnants of the bomber’s explosives “suggest an improvised explosive device made with forethought and care.”

By Wednesday, the British government had raised the threat level to “critical” – the first time it has done that in seven years – and dispatched its military to provide additional protection to likely targets: Buckingham Palace, the Houses of Parliament at Westminster, airports and major train stations. Great Britain, home to the gun-less cop, now has police sporting the sort of body armor, automatic weapons and side arms that are ubiquitous in the United States, and in major cities like Paris, where a state of emergency has been in place for nearly two years.

Eight men are now in custody in the U.K., including Abedi’s brother Ismail. Another of Abedi’s brothers, Hashem, is being held by a Libyan militia, the Wall Street Journal reported. A member of the Radaa militia, Ahmed Dagdoug, said Hashem Abedi confessed that he and his brother were members of ISIS. He also admitted to being in the U.K. to prepare for the attack on Monday and “was aware of all the plans.”

The group, whose statement the Journal couldn’t independently verify, is also reportedly holding their father, Ramadan. In an interview with Reuters, Ramadan Abedi said he’d spoken to his son days before the attack. Salman Abedi told his father he was traveling to Saudi Arabia for a pilgrimage to Mecca. He didn’t say where his son was when they spoke on the phone.

British officials believe Abedi had recently returned from Libya and had probably traveled to Syria. Hundreds of Libyans have traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq, with some joining ISIS, while others looked to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

“The age of the assailant suggests he was recruited because he was impressionable and so young that he had a clean police record,” Arkedis said. “They had the recruit, the materials for the device and enough know-how to case the venue. That’s all you need in 2017. They hardly needed an evil genius mastermind to pull it off. We shouldn’t give them a ton of credit for their sophistication.”

To many, the notion that Britain, with all its security cameras, couldn’t prevent the attack, is misguided. There isn’t a street corner in the English capital that doesn’t have a small box – usually black, white or grey – angled down at road, capturing every passing moment. Six years ago, a security industry report revealed that there was one closed-circuit TV camera for every 11 people in the United Kingdom.

“What is important to remember about video cameras is that they are not preventative measures, rather they are exceptionally useful – but for forensics and investigation after the fact,” said Brian Nussbaum, Ph.D., assistant professor, University at Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity. “There were and are security measures in place in Manchester. But security measures that can prevent a lone attacker who is outside a security cordon for a major event from setting of a bomb are probably not realistic in most places.”

Nussbaum added: “Remember, the Paris attackers were not allowed into the soccer stadium, but blew themselves up outside it.”

As more details emerge – many of them unwillingly via U.S. officials leaking to American media to Britain’s unhappiness – so too does a picture of a man whose views were pronounced enough that at least two people who knew him called terrorist hotlines to report him.

Jasmine El-Gamal, a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, says that as ISIS continues to lose ground in Iraq and Syria, the challenge for governments and law enforcement officials in places like Britain remains immense.

“Western countries should expect more of these types of attacks, particularly on unexpected, soft targets,” she said.

By the end of the week, Britain’s military and security forces were out in force. Last year, a Norwegian man of Somali descent attacked a group of people in Russell Square in central London, stabbing and killing an American woman and wounding several others. Only days before London Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said that it was “a case of when, not if” the city comes under attack.

For Great Britain, “when” has arrived.