LONDON – How can any young man decide to kill himself, as happened in the recent atrocity in Manchester, England, in an attempt to slaughter as many other young and innocent people as possible? The bomber does not seem to have been insane. Nor did he lack education. What motivated him, his associates who were allegedly planning to commit similar atrocities and supporters of the Islamic State militant group, which claimed responsibility?
One suggestion has been that the atrocity was driven by a desire for revenge for Western attacks on Islamic extremist forces in Iraq and Syria in which women and children were killed. But for most people, whether religious or not, indiscriminate vengeance is never justifiable. This atrocity targeted the most vulnerable.
Was the massacre a delayed response to British policies in the Middle East and particularly British participation in the Iraq War, which had provoked hatred of Britain and the West? Even if some British policies were unwise, no rational person can argue that policy mistakes are a justification for the mass murder of innocents.
Was the aim to further the establishment in the West of an Islamic caliphate? There is no conceivable possibility of a new caliphate being established in Europe in the foreseeable future. Atrocities only infuriate and arouse hatred. They do not cow the people who suffer. Instead they induce a new determination to stand up against such horrors. The people of Manchester came together to commemorate the dead and injured, and they were determined to show that they were not afraid. The atrocity not merely failed to advance the terrorists’ cause but was counterproductive.
Did the suicide bomber, who used sophisticated means of communications and weaponry, really think that he would become a martyr and go to paradise where he would be greeted with various unimaginable rewards? If he did believe such claptrap, how was he led to such false beliefs?
Was jihad, which may be defined as the struggle against unbelievers, the underlying motive? The vast majority of Islamic scholars do not consider jihad to mean violence, certainly not to justify the massacre of women and children.
Could it be that the motive was an anarchist desire to destroy society and the world as we know it? He was more likely driven by a mixture of motives and beliefs that were brainwashed into him by Islamic fundamentalist organizations. The Islamic State is one such group. Al-Qaida is another. The teachings of the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia cannot be absolved from responsibility for encouraging extremism. The Muslim Brotherhood has inspired the killing of Christians in Egypt. There are extremist elements in both Sunni and Shiite Islam.
Efforts to deter and prevent young men and women from becoming extremists have so far only had limited success in Britain and other European countries. In Britain, the Security Service has been criticized for not giving priority to early warnings it had received about the Manchester bomber. But the service is reportedly trying to keep watch on 3,000 potential Islamic terrorists. Many of these people have returned from fighting in Syria. There are also reputed to be some 20,000 other possible recruits. Security resources and staff have been significantly increased, but it is impossible to follow every potential terrorist. There are an infinite number of soft targets, from schools and churches to shopping malls, sporting arenas and concert venues.
The British government’s counter terrorism strategy, titled “Prevent,” in existence since 2011, has had only limited success. It aims to challenge the ideology that supports terrorism, to protect vulnerable people and aid institutions where there are risks of radicalization. It involves the central and local governments and depends for its effectiveness on the cooperation of teachers and religious leaders and their willingness to draw attention to individuals showing extremist tendencies.
The Muslim community in Britain, which has in the past been criticized for its tardy response to terrorist incidents, quickly condemned the Manchester massacre and is clearly anxious to prove that Islam does not condone such atrocities. But some Muslim practices, approved by the more orthodox members of the Muslim communities, including arranged marriages, female genital mutilation and subjugation of women, do not conform with accepted norms in Britain and hinder integration of Muslim communities into British society. They also provide a screen that encourages extremist tendencies among the ultraorthodox.
There has been much discussion about the possible need for further measures to find and weed out extremists. Should control orders on the movements of potential terrorists be more widely used? Should the security services be given more powers to access encrypted messages? Should social media such as Facebook be forced to act more effectively and speedily to remove harmful material, including messages exchanged between potential terrorists, videos of atrocities and do-it-yourself manuals for making weapons and explosives? There are no easy answers to these questions, but there is rightly a widespread reluctance in Britain to authorize measures that could unnecessarily limit individual freedoms.
The problems posed by terrorists in Britain have international ramifications. Brexit must not be allowed to weaken intelligence sharing in Europe. The unfortunate and premature leaks about the Manchester bomber by U.S. authorities to The New York Times should not halt trans-Atlantic security cooperation. All Western leaders need to be careful not to stir up Muslim animosities by misguided interventions and oversimplifications as U.S. President Donald Trump did while in Saudi Arabia recently.
The atrocities, which have led to such appalling loss of life in Britain, France and other European countries, are rightly not being allowed to cause fundamental changes to our way of life. They must not undermine the rule of law and the democratic principles of tolerance and respect for human life that lie at the heart of our traditions.
Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.