Black Banners Monthly
Manchester bombing signals Islamic State’s intent to operate at higher tempo in Western Europe over Ramadan
The British Government reduced the UK’s threat level from critical to severe on 27 May, five days after it was raised following Islamic State’s (IS) first mass-casualty attack in the country, when British-born Salman Abedi killed 22 people in a suicide bombing at the Manchester Arena (see our 24 May Special Report). Abedi, who was of Libyan origin, had returned from Libya to the UK (via Turkey and Germany) just four days prior to the attack. The explosive device that Abedi used - which was packed with shrapnel, carried in a rucksack and detonated with a hand-held trigger - was sophisticated and well made, suggesting that he received training and direction from experienced IS jihadists in Libya.
The critical threat level reflected the UK’s concern that Abedi was part of a wider network, and that other members would seek to conduct strikes in the UK before being detained by the security forces. Indeed, at least sixteen people have been arrested since the bombing. However, the British authorities said on 30 May that Abedi likely acted largely alone, and this will have driven the decision to return the threat level to severe, which indicates that London no longer fears an imminent IS attack.
That said, the security agencies have not yet definitively ruled out that Abedi was part of, or had links to, an IS network. We believe that it is plausible that he did have ties to a jihadist cell in the UK, through his connections to militants in Libya, which likely helped guide the bombing. The Manchester attack therefore highlights that IS is prepared to send small numbers of trained jihadists to Europe to orchestrate or support violence. Indeed, our last Report warned that there was an increased risk that IS would attempt to conduct more complex strikes over Ramadan, which began on 27 May and will end around 25 June.
Jihadists regard Ramadan as an auspicious time for attacks, but last year IS failed to conduct a major strike until the end of the holy month, when 41 people were killed in an assault against Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul on 28 June. In contrast, the Manchester attack came four days before the beginning of Ramadan, which also marks the third anniversary of IS establishing its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria. This indicates that IS wants the incident to demonstrate its intent to carry out a high tempo of complex attacks in the West over the next month, and encourage its supporters to engage in violence in the region. This is because the group is desperate to be seen as capable of operating in Europe as its Caliphate comes under growing pressure, in an effort to protect its credibility and recruitment, and limit defections to its rival, al-Qaeda.
There will consequently be an increased risk of an IS attack against a high-profile target, such as a sporting event, entertainment venue or iconic site, in Western Europe in the coming weeks. France and Belgium will face the greatest threat as they are home to large jihadist communities and are more accessible from the Middle East. In addition, IS may hope that carrying out strikes in the UK and Germany before elections on 8 June and 24 September, respectively, will fuel far-right and anti-immigration rhetoric and violence, and so drive radicalisation and recruitment. Islamist extremists are also present in Norway and Sweden, while IS may also consider Denmark a target for its role in the Prophet Mohammed cartoon controversy, and Christian sites in Italy are also a significant target.
That said, while IS has the intent to significantly elevate the tempo of attacks in Europe over the next month, governments across the region will tighten security measures during Ramadan. This will help mitigate IS’s ability to conduct a rapid spate of major attacks across Western Europe in the coming weeks. Indeed, on 30 May the German authorities announced that they had arrested a Syrian teenager in northwest Germany, who was plotting to carry out a suicide attack in Berlin. A failure by IS to follow-up the Manchester suicide bombing with further complex strikes in Europe would therefore demonstrate the significant constraints on jihadists seeking to operate in the region.
Security agencies will find it more difficult to disrupt attacks by IS sympathisers, especially as many are self-radicalised and do not have direct links to known jihadist recruiters or networks. Moreover, IS has stepped up calls for its supporters in the West to act on its behalf, and this month’s publication of its online magazine Rumiyah called for truck attacks against pedestrians, and the taking of hostages to attract media attention. The threat of sympathiser violence will therefore also rise over Ramadan, not only in Europe but also in the US and Australia where there are small jihadist communities. Most sympathiser attacks will be low-level, such as stabbings, but some inexperienced individuals will seek to cause mass casualties by using vehicles as a weapon. In the US, access to firearms enhances the risk of a high death toll from attacks by IS supporters.