Despite Manchester Attack, Britain's Impressive Record of Foiling Terror Rivals Even Israel's

Suicide bombing unlikely to change U.K.'s largely successful security policy

An armed police officer stands at Manchester Piccadilly railway station in Manchester, U.K., on Tuesday, May 23.
Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

The suicide bombing Monday night in the heart of Manchester, which killed at least 22 people on their way out of a pop concert, is the worst terror attack in Britain in 12 years. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone. The local security forces have succeeded in preventing hundreds of similar attacks in the past decade and it was only a matter of time until one would succeed.

Manchester has a special place in the history of the terror campaign waged at the end of the last century by the Irish Republican Army against British targets. In the Arndale Shopping Center bombing in June 1996, the IRA planted a truck laden with explosives in the city’s commercial center and destroyed or severely damaged dozens of historic buildings. The bombing is remembered due to the wreckage, not the casualty list. The IRA stuck to its practice of giving prior telephone warning of bombs planted in civilian areas and nearly 80,000 people were evacuated on time. Two hundred were wounded by flying debris. Manchester center was rebuilt at the cost of over a billion pounds.

>> Analysis: Manchester attack to highlight security credentials ahead of U.K. vote >>

In recent years Britain is facing a very different wave of terror. Young native-born Britons, who have undergone Islamic radicalization — some, members of the local Muslim community, others, who converted to Islam — are embarking on suicide missions with a knife, vehicle or makeshift explosive device, assembled through online instruction. A terror campaign without a network of cells and set of rules that gave a semblance of order to the Irish terror.

Britain has been contending with this different brand of terror since the devastating attacks on London’s public transport system in July 2005. Despite the attackers’ occasional success the security services have been dealing with them well. The criticism raised after every major terror incident — of security policy on the European continent, on the leniency towards radical groups, the lack of coordination and intelligence-sharing between agencies and governments, and patchy electronic surveillance of potential suspects — are largely irrelevant in Britain’s case.

Britain’s intelligence and counterterrorism agencies have been on the highest terror alert now for years and have the use of the most advanced technological and legal tools which have enabled them to prevent dozens of attacks every year.

Like other Western countries, Britain is facing a new pattern of terror — “lone wolf” attacks by individuals, rather than organized networks, and so far it is doing so relatively well. And no less importantly, it has succeeded in doing this without any noticeable change to daily life — not even in central London, where an attack near parliament in March claimed five lives. Britain’s high terror prevention rate rivals Israel’s. Over the next few days, as more details emerge, it will become clearer what, if anything, the security services knew about the perpetrator of Monday night's attack. But it is unlikely that this will provide a reason for any drastic change in British counter-terror strategy.

This is the second British election campaign reaching its peak in the shadow of domestic terror. Last year, eight days before the referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, Member of Parliament Jo Cox was murdered by a white supremacist because of her pro-immigration views. Cox was also a campaigner for Britain remaining in the EU but her murder didn’t seem to affect the referendum’s outcome. Early this morning, leaders of the main parties in Britain announced that they were suspending their election campaigns until further notice, but it’s hard to believe that such a tragic incident won’t have a political impact.

The general election in two and a half weeks has become, to a large degree, a personal contest between Prime Minister and Conservative party leader Theresa May, who is asking for the voters’ confidence based on her personal record in government, and Labour leader and veteran radical left activist Jeremy Corbyn. Until nine months ago, May was the Home Secretary, the minister in charge of domestic security and counter-terrorism. She held the post for five years. As details emerge regarding the circumstances of the attack and identity of the attacker, there may well be criticism of the work of the agencies May was in charge of. On the other hand, the Manchester attack is also likely to remind voters of many of Corbyn’s past statements like those blaming Western governments’ policies for previous terror incidents. They may also recall his support for the IRA cause (though in recent days, under media pressure he has condemned their bombing attacks) — and of course, his invitation to members of Hezbollah and Hamas, whom he called "our friends" to visit British parliament.