Today, a devastating suicide attack in Manchester Arena claimed by the terror organisation the Islamic State left 22 dead and 59 wounded. The attack was deadliest in the UK’s history since the London 7/7 bombings in 2005. The terror attack came as a part of series of lone wolf terror attacks around Europe conducted by Islamist radicals. The nature of the attack seems, however, to differ from previous attacks in terms of nature of the bombing, context, and the details connected to the act of terror and therefore presenting possible sophisticated motives in ISIL’s strategy.
There are three distinguishable points to raise concerning the Manchester Arena bombing: the way the attack was carried out, the location of the scene, and the timing of the attack. Firstly, the currently available evidence suggests that the bomb and the planning were more sophisticated than in previous lone-wolf attacks in the UK and Europe. Army officer and expert in unconventional warfare Antti Paronen suggested in his expert analysis in the Finnish media that the acquisition of explosive materials required special arrangements, resources, and expertise. He also noted that the place and context were carefully considered and examined and the purpose of the attack was to maximise the media attention and the public reaction.
However, the most interesting detail is the timing of the attacks. The London 7/7 bombings in 2005 were executed two months after the general election and one day after the London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games. The Manchester Arena attacks, in turn, occurred a couple of hours after the general election pre-registration was closed and two weeks before the election. This observation opens a question of possible motivation for the Manchester Arena attack: Is it possible that the ISIL would have had a political motive to influence the British elections?
Terror and politics
When approaching the question of political motive, some 4th generation warfare theory is needed in order to examine the theoretical basis of the political motive. In Thomas X. Hobbes’ comprehensive book The Sling and the Stone, Hobbes writes that
Fourth Generation warfare (4GW) uses all available networks – political, economic, social, and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit.
Hence, by using unconventional means of war, the adversary influences the political decision making of the targeted country in order to achieve its strategic objectives. In other words, the nature of terror warfare is mostly political. The unconventional means of warfare are bombings, stabbings, and truck attacks while the strategic objectives are to win the holy war, jihad, and to establish a global fundamental Islamist political system, the caliphate. Therefore, the possibility of a political motive exists.
Current political environment and strategy
But how would a terror attack hasten the achievement of the Islamic State’s political objectives? In this phase, the answer lies in the examination of the current British political environment. According to the latest polls and op-edges concerning the British elections, there has been a noticeable Labour surge, especially among the 18-24-year-old voters. Hence, when examining the nature of the Manchester Arena bombing, it can be noted that the attack was targeted especially against children and young people. In theory, the most effective way to ensure UKIP and especially young voters to stay in the conservative bloc would be fuelling immigration and policing debate. This approach would be supported by the fact that the GE campaigning has been suspended for the time being and the Government has the exclusive media focus in newspapers and television at the moment.
The next phase, however, is more problematic: How would a Conservative victory help the ISIL to achieve its objectives? Here, there might be two reasons: Firstly, there might be a wide assumption in the terror networks that the London bombing caused a political u-turn in terms of the popularity of Tony Blair’s government. When Blair got elected in 2005, the UK was involved in the war in Iraq and the failures in the aftermath of the Operation Iraqi Freedom led to the resignation of Prime Minister Blair. There was also a planned car bomb attack in 2007 that was countered by the counter-terrorism authorities. Secondly, the Labour victory would most likely enhance the political cohesion in the UK and Europe due to Corbyn’s plan for soft Brexit. The Tory landslide victory, in turn, would legitimise hard Brexit and could likely cause an internal and external political confrontation in the UK and Europe, especially concerning the questions of Scottish independence and economic factors. The problem with the suggested theory though is the lack of data: there cannot be made any straightforward conclusions, merely assumptions.
While it might be possible that the Manchester Arena attack had sophisticated political motives, nothing can be proven for certain. Secondly, the actual interaction between the bomber and the supporting organisation is unknown. However, there are three points to support the theory of a political motive: Firstly, the sophisticated execution suggests that the attack was carefully planned and carried out; secondly, the political nature of terror warfare tends to exploit political weaknesses and opportunities of the adversary; and thirdly, there are interesting links between the London 7/7 bombing and Manchester Arena attack as well as in details concerning the context of the attack in the light of current political environment in the UK. Eventually, the only confident fact is the Tory government’s chance to regain the lost political ground and to achieve a landslide victory in the coming general elections.
Edit: Here is Chris Hawkins’ assessment of the ISIL’s motives in France to influence the French elections for Marie Le Pen’s favour. Hawkins works in the Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC). The article was published in the Sun 21st April 2017.