The suicide bomber in Monday night’s terrorist attack in Manchester, England has been identified as 22-year-old Salman Abedi. He was the son of Libyan refugees who fled Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, but Abedi grew up in Manchester. According to police, he was “known to authorities,” but it’s not entirely clear in what capacity, and worshiped at a mosque suspected of funding jihadists. Abedi’s brother has been arrested, according to British police, and there have been raids throughout the city in connection with the bombing.
Although this isn’t only a foreign policy matter (the West has a real problem with the radicalized children of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries) the attack and bomber’s profile, as far as we currently know, are stark reminders of the continued threat of ISIS and why the United States needs to adopt policies that encourage stability in the Middle East.
Ramadan: a Month of Prayer for Many Different Reasons
The horrific bombing, which left 22 dead and more than 50 wounded, comes just four days before the beginning of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan that goes until June 24. Ramadan is the month when the Quran was supposedly revealed to the prophet Mohammed. It is a time of fasting, prayer, and contemplation for Muslims around the world. But it has also been a time of heightened terror attacks. Last year, experts predicted that Ramadan would bring an increase in terror attacks from ISIS, and it did.
During the month of Ramadan in 2016, ISIS claimed responsibility for: the stabbing of a police office and his partner in France; the Ataturk Airport bombing; the Orlando nightclub shooting; and an attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh that killed 24. In the weeks that followed Ramadan, the Nice attack occurred, killing 86 and injuring hundreds; a French priest’s throat was slit in his church; and in Germany there was an attack on a train in Würzburg and a bombing near a music festival in Ansbach.
It’s possible that the bombing on Monday night will be the first in a series of attacks in the West during Ramadan and the summer months. The bombing also happened to have coincided with the fourth anniversary of the killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was brutally hacked to death in southeast London by two men carrying knives, who then tried to behead him.
The Ripple Effects of ISIS Losses in Syria and Iraq
Whatever the reason for the timing, the Manchester bombing is a stunning reminder that despite ISIS losing territory in the Middle East, its appeal isn’t totally lost on young Muslims living in the West. While we don’t yet know whether Abedi traveled overseas to train with ISIS—although it appears he travelled several times to Libya, where his parents are believed to have returned after Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011—the attack also reminds us of the concerns experts have had for some time about the ripple effects of ISIS’s gradual loss of territory in Syria and Iraq.
As I have previously written, analysts have worried that as the Islamic State loses its foothold in the Middle East, foreign fighters will begin flowing back home, armed with extensive military training and a radical Islamist ideology. The U.S. coalition partners fighting ISIS in places like Mosul are trying hard to ensure that they don’t let any fighters, foreign or otherwise, slip through with the thousands of refugees fleeing ISIS-controlled areas and melt back into the general population, but there’s no way for anyone to catch them all.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that of the 850 or so British citizens who went to fight with ISIS, about 400 have returned to England. But there’s also concern that as ISIS loses its territories in Syria and Iraq and returns to its al-Qaeda roots, it will ramp up its campaign to radicalize in the West, and homegrown terror attacks will increase. In addition to returning ISIS fighters, British security services are monitoring another 3,000 potential terrorists. But as Abedi’s case so terribly demonstrates, the police can’t keep track of them all, nor can they predict which ones will turn out to be high-risk.
The Never-Ending War
It’s unknown if Abedi received direct guidance from ISIS or was instead inspired by them. However, authorities don’t think Abedi had the know-how to make the bomb he detonated, raising concerns that he may be part of a larger cell and a bomb-maker could be assisting other would-be attackers.
That is, in part, why Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Friday that the total annihilation of ISIS is necessary to prevent the threat from hopping from location to location without disappearing. Even if the Manchester attacker wasn’t a foreign fighter, the continued existence of ISIS risks the radicalization and activation of aspiring jihadists in the West. The risks, and the cost, are too high. “Total annihilation” isn’t mere hyperbole in this case; it’s a strategic imperative.
But any U.S. strategy for defeating ISIS—or al-Qaeda—must rest on the knowledge that total annihilation is unlikely for one important reason. These terrorist groups thrive in unstable countries and failed states, which the Middle East and North Africa have in spades. They will always move into and expand in regions where this instability flourishes. We’ve seen this in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Afghanistan.
So, while President Trump’s speech over the weekend urging the leaders of Muslim countries to take the initiative in fighting terrorism was the right message, it was also perhaps naïve not to see that the United States will have to promote regional stability in all the ways it can, including a more robust military presence in the Middle East, in order to give ISIS and al-Qaeda no quarter.