War on Terror

Should British Security Have Known Enough About Abedi's Threat to Prevent the Manchester Bombing?

Certain guarantees of security are simply impossible in a free society, and the more we widen the net of suspects via mass surveillance, the more impossible true protection gets.


After Salman Abedi murdered 22 people outside a concert in Manchester earlier this month, disquieting reports indicated the government was already aware that Abedi was a serious terror threat.

: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com via Foter.com / CC BY

The UK Telegraph reported that "security services missed five opportunities to stop" him.

Did they really, in a sense that advocates of a non-police-state should respect?

The Telegraph report insists that "authorities were informed of the danger posed by Abedi on at least five separate occasions in the five years prior to the attack on Monday night," including calls to an anti-terrorism hotline reporting that Abedi said to friends "being a suicide bomber was OK." Friends claimed they called in warnings on him five years ago, and again last year.

The Telegraph refers to the failure of such reports to lead to, one presumes, preventing Abedi from committing his crime as "apparent lapses."

"The Home Secretary conceded that Abedi was known the intelligence services," they reported.

An unnamed source insisted his own family reported him as "dangerous." And he traveled frequently to Libya—as free citizens who have not yet been arrested or convicted of a crime can do—where he may have been "trained in bombmaking." His father had been part of a Libyan radical army.

Part of the Telegraph's report claimed that a mosque Abedi attended, Didsbury Mosque, reported him to a government anti-radicalism program, though this week the BBC reports that that apparently wasn't true.

True or false, are the range of things the government supposedly "knew" as an overall entity about Abedi enough to trigger the sort of police action that could reasonably have been expected to prevent Abedi's heinous crime? Such action, it seems, would have either constituted preventive detention or the sort of one-agent-one-suspect tailing that perhaps could have seen him picking up the suicide vest before he used it.

The gap between "had knowledge he had a possible tendency to commit an act of terror" and the Telegraph's language of "opportunity to stop" is huge, and in that gap lie most of the human rights and rightful expectation of restrictions on police ability to roust or apprehend those who have not yet committed any crimes that constitute the expected relations between citizen and authority in modern Western civilization.

According to one survey last year done for a British Channel 4 documentary, there could be as many as 100,000 British Muslims who live in areas with high Muslim population who at least "sympathize" with suicide bombers, a subtly different point than believing personally being one was OK, but a figure that should at least hint at the general huge gap between an attitude like Abedi apparently expressed and actually acting on it (even though he was in the end one of the vanishingly tiny percentage of western Muslims who actually did commit the atrocity of suicide bombing).

Being "known" to have some risk of terror, like for example being on the U.S. terror watch list, is a quality that as many as a million people might share, according to the U.S. government. It simply can't in and of itself mark a person to be physically surveilled in all their actions to make sure they don't, say, manufacture a backpack bomb and walk to a crowded public place.

And the more people get "known" to have some sympathies or connections or links to terror, via more and more surveillance and call lines and more and more sucking up of fearful information on more and more people, the less useful that information is for the sort of policing that's supposed to guarantee no one ever commits sudden public mass murder.

As Scott Shackford reported in our March issue, the U.K. had already been strengthening and codifying its power to surveill its citizens, including:

create a "technical capability notice" giving U.K. officials the authority to demand changes to these products. And one of the things they're allowed to demand is the removal, upon request, of any "electronic protection" concealing users' communications or data. This means that private companies could be forced to break their own encryption to help the government access data. The law even authorizes such demands to be made on tech companies based outside the country if they do business within the United Kingdom. What's more, it prohibits those companies from so much as informing their users about the government's request unless the authorities gives the OK.

As the plethora of alleged terror threats who are only potentially harmful when government provocateurs encourage them to be indicate, it is almost certainly the case that there are tremendously more people who will mouth off hostility and anger and ill intent than will actually commit a mass-casualty, or any-casualty, act of terror.

It is neither particularly sensible, possible, nor respectful of traditional western liberties, to say that anyone who the police have any reason to believe has ever said the sort of things Abedi said should thus receive the sort of 24 hour physical tailing that would prevent him from being able to obtain a suicide vest and use it.

The state, with all the powers of surveillance at its disposal, cannot reliably stop this sort of small-cell one-man one-bomb murder attack. That's not because it is incompetent at doing a job it should be able to do, though that is certainly true of many things and would likely be true even if it could better genuinely target from its vast sea of "potential threats" the ones with serious intent and capacity.

Remembering that inability should help us avoid pursuing ever-more-intrusive policies that promise to do so. Because no such hoovering of information and multiplying of the suspicious could provide a sure protection against such acts. And imagine the officious waste of time and resources it would take to even pretend to keep a solid terror-preventing eye on everyone who has fallen into the Western security state's web of suspicion.

Even if in retrospect the state clearly "should have known this would happen," in a world of basic respect for the rights of people who have not in fact committed a crime or given specific signals of specific intent to do so, the state neither possibly could nor should provide the sort of blanket tight-focused physical surveillance that is the only thing that even conceivably could prevent atrocities of the sort that hit Manchester.