Manchester, England, is no stranger to the menace that terrorism inflicts on a national psyche. February 9th, 1996 marked the bloody end to a 17-month ceasefire between the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the United Kingdom, whose citizens, including women and children, had long been the targets of the radical IRA’s effort to remove Northern Ireland from England’s control.
The London Docklands bombing in the financial district of Canary Wharf on that February day left two dead and 100 injured after a truck bomb was detonated, causing approximately $190 million in property damage. More frightening was the reality that this attack reinforced: the IRA was a terrorist organization, and ceasefires, treaties, and appeasements were never going to serve as deterrents to attacks against British citizens.
Despite the Docklands bombing reverberating throughout the United Kingdom, Manchester remained shrouded in a sense of quiet safety. Located 209 miles northwest of London, the town known for its tight-knit, football-obsessed, working class population and its red-brick Manchester University seemed far from an obvious target for the IRA.
And, on Saturday, June 15th, 1996, there was reason to be focused on London. Trooping the Colour, a ceremony held on a Saturday in June, commemorates the official birthday of the reigning King or Queen. A tradition as English as they come, a royal procession flanks the Queen as she departs from and returns to Buckingham Palace after ample pomp and circumstance. This grand ceremony was to be held on this Saturday, and anti-terror troops were out in massive numbers, the Trooping the Colour an obvious opportunity for the IRA to perpetrate a massive, public attack against England.
Yet, while London would be the obvious target for any attack, it has been proven time and again that unpredictability is a critical element in the most ruinous terror plots. Manchester would not, if chosen, be an illogical target, either. An international football match between Russia and Germany was to be played at the iconic Old Trafford Stadium, home to Manchester United soccer club, on the next day.
For whatever reason, it was the residents and tourists in Manchester that would be targeted on June 15th, 1996, with devastating results. Around 9:20 a.m., two men in hooded jackets and sunglasses were caught on video departing a white Ford Cargo van parked in front of a Marks and Spencer retail store in the heart of Manchester’s shopping district. Inside the van was the largest bomb that would ever be detonated on the English mainland, 3,300 pounds of homemade, lethal explosives. Mass evacuations saved countless lives, but 200 were injured in the blast, which could be heard 15 miles away less than two hours after the men exited the vehicle.
Yesterday, terror returned to the already scarred psyche of Mancunians.
In the waning moments of an Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena, a man wearing what has been described as an explosive nail-vest detonated the wearable improvised explosive device among a crowd of civilians outside of the arena. The suspect, Salman Ramadan Abedi, 22-years-old, is thought to have carried out the plot that left at least 22 people dead and 59 injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. Among the victims was at least one eight-year-old girl.
The attack was the worst in the United Kingdom since the July 7th, 2005 bombings in London which killed 56 people.
Manchester serves as an example of one city, seemingly unspectacular in terms of what terrorists see as appealing locales to target, which has been the site of two of the most devastating attacks in the history of the United Kingdom. Its history of terror attacks is noteworthy. But, despite this, there is little about Manchester itself that makes it unique from the other cities targeted by terror groups.
In the case of the IRA attack, it was merely a populous English locale. That alone made it a suitable target.
Within the context of this latest attack, the criteria for Manchester as a suitable target is even less stringent. Essentially, it is a modern, Western city not under the rule of Sharia Law. That alone is enough for ISIS to viciously unleash lethal force upon innocent children and civilians within the city’s confines.
Many implications of this latest attack are yet to be known. In the wake of President Trump’s stern, urgent message to Islamic leaders during his trip to Saudi Arabia, questions of how he will approach the global fight against terror are more pertinent than ever.
The speech was hailed by supporters and critics alike as one that was stern while not condescending, making it clear that the United States is more interested in cooperating with Arab nations to root out terrorism than to intervene. Essentially, it was a call by America for other nations to take serious action in rooting out terrorism within their own borders. American leadership is no longer acting as if diplomacy or economic improvement will stop terrorism, or that our forces alone can eliminate the ever-multiplying supply of radicals. Terrorists must be driven out, with force, by the countries which they inhabit.
While Trump was speaking to Islamic leaders, this message may well have been extended to the entire world. Emmanuel Macron in France. Angela Merkel in Germany. Stefan Lofven in Sweden. And yes, Theresa May in England.
With one speech given in the region where radical Islamic terrorism is sired, President Trump changed the global tone toward fighting terror. Accepting no excuses from leaders who do not do enough to root out terrorists within their borders. Refusing to acknowledge terrorists as “monsters,” knowing that this would further perpetuate their self-image as the administers of fear among the civilized world:
We had not previously seen a speech this direct, calling for swift and violent action against the likes of ISIS by nations who in the past have sponsored terrorism. Not under Bush, and certainly not Obama, who spoke more of ‘sticking together’ in the wake of terror attacks rather than revolting against them with force.
The point is, the game has changed. Not just for terrorists and the countries that perpetuate terror-like actions against their people (see: Assad, Syria); but also for world leaders, even our allies. President Trump knows that the threat of terror is insidious. An unstable government unable or unwilling to seriously address, and ultimately root out, the seeds of terror in their country is a threat to American safety.
No longer is being our ally, saying the right things, and being a modernized society enough to appease our government. With one speech, it was made clear: in the fight against terror, you’re either with us, or you’re with them.
With respect to Theresa May’s treatment of terror in England, there is unlikely to be any intervention on America’s part. For one, she is a conservative who shares a worldview more similar to Donald Trump’s than perhaps any other current European leader. Admittedly, being further right of most Euro leaders is not saying much these days, but it is something.
She was elected to power during a time of turmoil that saw the uncertainty of Brexit and the instability of the EU deteriorating the sense of British stability. She was chosen because of her reputation as an unflappable, principled leader.
And, in the wake of the Manchester attacks, she has said the right (albeit obvious) things. She deemed the attacks “appalling.” She recognized the attack as worse than the 1996 Manchester bombing, and the worst to ever hit Northern England.
Still, most of her speech is not reminiscent of the uncompromising, intransigent tone which Trump’s message to Islamic leaders exuded. May’s message was, for the most part, filled with platitudes about seeing “the best” in people following the attack. Praising the people of Manchester’s strength. In other words, the same recycled message that has followed countless terror attacks in the past eight plus years
We all – every single one of us – stand with the people of Manchester at this terrible time. pic.twitter.com/vMTwaBbncl— Theresa May (@theresa_may) May 23, 2017
When one considers that May, in the past, has condemned in the same breath anti-jihad comments and jihad itself, it is fair to wonder just how serious she will be in rooting out terrorism from England. How willing she will be in saying and doing the at-times uncomfortable things, specifically when it comes to the issues of radicalism rampant within Islam.
There’s nothing wrong with praising the strength of Mancunians and Brits as a whole. It needs to be said in such dark hours. But, as President Trump showed in Saudi Arabia, a stern message is important. It is the first step in establishing that the fear should lie not with innocent civilians living their lives peacefully, but within those hoping to disrupt peaceful existence through mass murder.
The President has shown a willingness to act swiftly against the openly defiant leaders such as Assad. How he will approach Western leaders who do not take as serious an approach to radical Islamism remains to be seen.
It is a new day in terms of anti-terror politics, and this may mean a new day in terms of intra-ally diplomacy as a well.