In some ways, the horrific terrorist attack in Manchester, England, was to be expected. There has been a string of terrorist attacks in Europe since 2015, from Paris to Copenhagen to Brussels, and ISIS has called on its followers to carry out even more.
But the attack in Manchester on Monday night, which killed at least 22 people and injured 59 others at an Ariana Grande concert, seems to have hit a nerve, to the point that Britain’s prime minister has now raised the country’s terror threat level to “critical” — its highest designation, meaning another attack “may be imminent.”
That could mean that Britain’s security services have credible information to suggest that another attack is in the works. But it could also just be a reflection of the fear and uncertainty the attack — the deadliest to occur in the country since 2005 — has caused in Britain.
Moreover, the concert attracted mostly young preteen girls who were at the venue to see the American pop idol perform, meaning that young children seem to have been purposely targeted, not just caught in the fray. Among those killed was 8-year-old Saffie Rose Roussos.
The method of the killing was also noteworthy. Police now believe that Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British national of Libyan descent, reportedly used a homemade bomb to kill himself and as many others as he could take with him. This is a break with the recent trend of terrorist attacks in Europe we’ve seen, where attackers have used ordinary vehicles to cause maximum carnage.
Even in a dark hour for Europe, Britain seems to be in one of its darkest minutes.
Manchester sticks out in a string of terror in Europe
To understand why Manchester sticks out among the recent carnage, it’s worth looking back to the attack in Nice, France, last year.
There, a terrorist used a truck to ram into a large crowd during Bastille Day, one of France’s most important holidays. The attack killed 86, including many children, and injured more than 300.
The use of the truck did not come out of nowhere. In its own publication, ISIS gave instructions for how to conduct truck attacks on innocent civilians. ISIS directly gave the blueprint to make an attack like Nice happen.
Perhaps that’s why of the 13 attacks since January 2015, four have used a vehicle as the main weapon. And before Manchester, only two attacks in that time period used explosives (the others are Paris in 2015 and the Brussels airport bombing in 2016).
Suicide bombings are particularly lethal because they are the ultimate smart bombs. They blend in with crowds, can make split-second decisions based on the circumstances they see, and can choose to detonate when they deem it most appropriate — and deadly.
That’s what appears to have happened in Manchester last night.
At around 10:33 pm local time, Abedi blew himself up, murdering the people around him. ISIS did claim responsibility for the attack, but it remains unclear whether the group was actually involved in any way — the statement the group put out was short and generic, didn’t identify the bomber, and got some details of the attack wrong.
But while we don’t yet know the attacker’s motives, the attack was clearly designed to inflict massive casualties. The detonation occurred “within the foyer area” of the Manchester arena, one of the biggest indoor stadiums in Europe, according to the Wall Street Journal, and took place right at the end of the show.
That means that Abedi waited for the conclusion of the concert, went into a busy area as people headed for the exits, and set off the bomb for maximum effect.
That level of calculation — not to mention what looks to be the deliberate targeting of young girls — is what makes this attack so deeply chilling.
Unfortunately, it’s to be expected that attacks like this will continue to happen in Europe. There will be more bombs. There will be more trucks. And there will be more death.
Because no matter how hard law enforcement and intelligence officials try to follow every lead and stop every plot, the sad fact is that stopping attacks like these is incredibly difficult.
Manchester isn’t the beginning of anything. It is only a continuation.