Manchester and the growing Islamic State threat

The suicide bombing that left 22 dead and 116 injured in Manchester on May 22nd came as a stern reminder of the ongoing elevated terrorist threat generated by the Islamic State in the United Kingdom and throughout Western Europe. The attack was the second one that hit England since March 2017 and highlights the enduring will of Sunni extremist militants to carry out mass-casualty operations primarily targeting civilians. The Manchester bombing raises fresh concerns over the evolution of the threat posed by the Islamic State as well as the degree to which public authorities are successful in degrading the terrorist capabilities.

Presence of dynamic and organised cells

The latest terrorist attack in Western Europe underscores radical Islamists’ continued capacity in forming small and dynamic cells aimed at planning and carrying out attacks. These groups are usually formed by a maximum of a dozen people. Islamist cells have demonstrated throughout the wave of attacks in Paris, Brussels and the bombing in Manchester that they can evade surveillance, manufacture explosives, acquire firearms, and monitor targeted sites and strike. The militants have also exposed their relative freedom of movement between Northern Africa, the Middle East and Central and Western Europe. These cells generally maintain some degree of contact with the Islamic State or other extremist groups via instant messaging platform as well as through radical Islamist networks present in Europe.

The threat of the returnees

The threat posed by these independent cells will grow due to the gradual return of citizens of Western European countries who fought alongside the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Intelligence agencies estimate that hundreds of these militants have already made their way back to the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and other European states. These extremists bring back with them battle-tested skills as well as a charisma which can be used to expand propaganda efforts. It is highly likely that the Islamic State will try to step up its European operations by using the recruitment and support network that are already in place and that will receive additional impetus through the arrival of returnees.

A successful propaganda

The Islamic State has demonstrated his resilience despite major territorial loses. While the group’s control over Syria and Iraq will probably continue to shrink, the Sunni extremist organisation has successfully created a virtual reality over social media and messaging platforms in which its propaganda can live on. As such, radicalised segments of European Muslim communities will continue to be subject to these messages. This will almost certainly result in a long-term threat generated by Sunni extremist terrorism and the collusion between militant groups and organised criminal gangs. The integration of the active cells within larger social segments will continue to make it difficult for police and intelligence agencies to monitor them.

Reactive security services

The bombing in Manchester, along with the other successful terrorist plots in Europe since 2015 have also brought forward the risk associated with current counter-terrorist measures. The majority of steps taken by public authorities involve the protections of sensitive sites along with intelligence-driven periodic counter-terrorist raids. The guarding of potential targets as well as the usage of police and military to patrol major cities and the deployment of hard obstacles to prevent vehicular attacks is a much needed approach to mitigate the risk posed by terrorist attacks. However, a pro-active strategy that involves the infiltration of threat groups, the disruption of cyber-based propaganda, the usage of technology-enabled monitoring measures and a review of anti-terrorist legislation is needed to prevent cells from developing and perpetrating violent plots.