The Fiascoes of Theresa May and British Intelligence Laid Bare in Manchester
The disastrous terrorist bombing that killed 22 people and injured more than 60 in the Manchester Arena on Monday, May 22, deserves to go down as one of the most notable fiascos of Britain’s two main intelligence services, MI5 (domestic) and MI6 (foreign). After the event, it all came spilling out that the Islamic State had been running a major terrorist cell, unnoticed by British intelligence, in the heart of the northern British city of Manchester and linked to a broad network in Germany, France, Libya and Syria.
It was admitted that the suicide bomber Salman Abedi, 22, had been known to the British authorities although he was not rated “high risk.” He was taken off their watch list – even though he was known to be paying regular visits to Libya. His family had moved to Tripoli after living for some years in Manchester where he was born and grew up.
That, at all events, was the official British version.
But another aspect laid bare by this tragic event was the creaking gaps in the intelligence-sharing mechanisms Western governments had set up for contending with Islamic terrorism. It turned out this week that, after the British lost interest in Abedi, he caught the notice of French intelligence, which kept a quiet eye on his movements.
This week, they were able to reveal that, although the terrorist did indeed travel to Libya before bombing the pop concert, his trip was a red herring to conceal his travels to Syria, where he had “proven” contacts with ISIS operatives. Some of the people he met there were recruits from his home town and neighborhood in Manchester.
The French claimed to have kept their British counterparts briefed on these discoveries. There is no way to tell if those counterparts ignored the information and if so, why; possibly, because they suspected Paris of trying to involve London into France’s anti-terror operations in Tripoli, or simply from a long history of cross-channel mistrust.
Germany entered the picture next. On Thursday, May 25, a day after France, German intelligence disclosed that the Manchester bomber had arrived in Duesseldorf four days before his attack and flew straight back home. Once again, there was no sign the British authorities knew about this. Their story was that he had arrived in Manchester from Libya.
Whatever the true version of the bomber’s movements may be, it is clear that there were enough holes in the British counterterrorism screen to allow Manchester’s ISIS cell leeway for preparations. The jihadists were able to construct several small, high-powered explosive devices for massive slaughter, build a team of potential suicide bombers and operate as part of a multiple-nation Islamic State network spread across Europe and the Middle East.
The network awarded each of its members a bomb and a target for operating alone – not as lone wolves but backed up by a smoothly-working support system.
Worth noting too is the quality of the explosives they used. Experts who examined the fragments found in the foyer of the Manchester Arena discovered a new type of bomb that upgraded the sophistication of the weapon used by the world’s Islamist terrorists as never before.
The details published in various outlets revealed a powerful explosive in a lightweight metal container that was concealed either in a vest or a backpack. Carefully fitted inside the bomb were metal nuts and screws capable not just of horrendous damage to bodies but even of penetrating metal doors. They left deep marks on the brick walls – all indicating an extra powerful, high-velocity charge.
The twisted remains of a Yuasa 12-volt, 2.1 amp lead acid battery, believed to have been held in the bomber’s left hand, was more powerful than the batteries usually seen in suicide vests and bomb backpacks. It appeared to have contained a small circuit board soldered inside one end.
It is not clear whether this was a plunger, or included a timer or a receiver that could be operated remotely via radio signal. If the object was a detonator, it would have given the bomber or the cell more than one option for deploying the device. This and its other features suggested that the bomb was not as simple in design as the usual terrorist device.
It is simpler to predict the prospective political fallout of this tragic event on Prime Minister Theresa May’s campaign for re-election in the fast-approaching Parliamentary vote of June 8. It is this which prompted an international incident between the British government and the Trump administration in Washington: May planned to scold Donald Trump about leaks from the investigation to the US media when she met him at the NATO meeting in Brussels on Thursday, May 25.
The police meanwhile registered their protest by deciding to “stop sharing information specifically about the Manchester attack with their security counterparts in the US” – although other sharing will continue.
But this response was no more than a distraction.
Up until this week, the Conservative prime minister campaigned on two main issues: her leadership and the coming negotiations on the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union. That changed on May 22. Defending Britain against terrorism soared abruptly as the overriding issue. Unfortunately, there is no way she can avoid being reminded that up until she became prime minister in July 2016, she was Home Secretary for six years. It was therefore on her watch that ISIS built its Manchester cell.