Raffaello Pantucci, courtesy of The Telegraph, 23 May 2017, where the title is “Cars and knives are easier to use, but bombs will always be central to terrorist thinking” **
Terrorism has a predictable brutality to it. And yet, the idea of a bombing is something that still surprises us when it happens. The attack in Manchester in some ways appears a flashback to a different time when the terrorists we worried about detonated bombs, rather than using vehicles as rams or stabbing people. The reality is that terrorism’s only constant is its desire to shock and kill. For any group or ideology, the fundamental point is to make yourself heard as dramatically as possible. Groups and individuals will use whatever tools they have to gain that attention.
Making bombs that you know will reliably work is not as easy as it might sound. History is littered with attempted bomb-makers whose devices detonated too early or failed to go off. Unless you have had some training or practice, it is difficult to know for certain that you are making something that will go off exactly when you want it to.
There have been examples of lone bomb makers in the past, but they are rare. Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Oslo in 2010, and David Copeland and Pavlo Lapshyn, who respectively launched one-man extreme right wing bombing campaigns in London and Birmingham, are examples. But in all cases, lone bomb makers choose to leave their devices behind rather than die in the detonation. This separates them from the Manchester bomber, though the degree to which we can conclude this means he acted alone is unclear.
The shift towards knives and cars was something that the group had encouraged in part as it realised that making bombs is difficult and prone to failure. Telling your aspirant warriors to keep it simple seems a more effective way to ensure success. One need only look at issues of the group’s magazine Rumiyah to see how rudimentary some of the forms of attack being promoted by Isil are.
But the key point to remember is that these groups, and Isil in particular, are not very discerning in teir methodologies for terrorist attacks. Their aim is to cause chaos, draw attention to themselves and kill as many as they can. This brings attention to their cause and shows their commitment to their ideology. It is intended to sow divisions in our societies and strengthen the narrative of anger that is central to breathing life into their beliefs.
So whether they use a bomb and murder children, massacre people at airports, gun them down in concert halls, or stab elderly priests in their churches, they are getting their job done. And if we shout in horror at the methodology they employ, they simply brush this away by pointing to atrocities that they see happening around the world, and which they see as setting a precedent for violence.
The key issue from the rest of society’s perspective is to realise this is their deadly intent, and to ensure to not rise to the bait and do the group’s job for them. Terrorism’s only constant remains its perpetrators desire to shock and murder: the manner in which they do so is only secondary.
Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Terrorists
** Pantucci’s MEMO is short response piece to the horrible incident that happened in Manchester for the Telegraph. The threat level has now been raised to Critical which means this incident is going to take a while to resolve. In the wake of the incident, spoke to CNBC, Guardian, and National Press Agency about bombs, and separately to Guardian, Washington Post, and The Australian about the bigger threat picture. Also did interview that was recorded on ABC’s Lateline.
Michael Roberts: “Marginalisation in Britain as Path to Islamic Fervour and/or Cricketing Fervour,” 16 December 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/12/16/marginalisation-in-britain-as-path-to-islamic-fervour-andor-cricketing-fervour/
Michael Roberts: “Lone Cell Assaults: From Boston to Westmead-in-Sydney to the Unabomber. Inspirations and Enabling Conditions in Comparative Perspective,” 19 April 2013, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2013/04/19/lone-cell-assaults-from-boston-to-westmead-in-sydney-to-the-unabomber-inspirations-and-enabling-conditions-in-comparative-perspective/
Michael Roberts: “Where In-fighting generates Fervour & Power: ISIS Today, LTTE yesterday,” 21 July 21 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/where-in-fighting-generates-fervour-power-isis-today-ltte-yesterda/
Michael Roberts: “Death and Eternal Life: contrasting sensibilities in the face of corpses,” 29 June 2011 https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/death-and-eternal-life-contrasting-sensibilities-in-the-face-of-corpses/
Michael Roberts: “The Will to War: Anzac, Mujahid, Kamikaze, Tiger,” 18 May 2015, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2015/05/18/the-will-to-war-anzac-mujahid-kamikaze-tiger/
Michael Roberts: “From Godse and Gandhi to the Selfless Sacrifice of Tamil Tigers,” 13 June 2014, https://thuppahi.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/from-godse-and-gandhi-to-the-selfless-sacrifice-of-tamil-tigers/