We are learning ever more about Salman Abedi, the terrorist who walked into the Manchester Arena and killed 22 other people, including ten in their teens or younger. From the moment Abedi detonated his device on 22 May, it was clear this was a more sophisticated and ambitious plot than most previous acts of terrorism on our shores. He was not acting alone.
Since 2013, along with several colleagues from King’s College London, I have mapped the flow of foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq. It has become clear to us, having closely examined these clusters, looking at the networks of interpersonal relationships and offline socialisation, that the challenge facing this country is complex and diverse.
What the data shows is that real-world interactions play a highly significant role in the process of someone moving from merely supporting extremism to becoming a terrorist.
It is best to think of this in the following terms. A large pool of people consumes extremist content for all sorts of reasons – by accident, for professional purposes, out of curiosity or through experimentation. Significantly smaller numbers then subscribe to it ideologically and become active supporters. An even smaller proportion mobilises and either travels abroad for terrorist purposes or conducts attacks at home.
The testimony of Jake Bilardi, an Australian convert who joined Islamic State at the age of 17, brings this into sharp relief. A self-published account on his blog reveals that he wanted to join IS for several months but was thwarted because he “hit one key roadblock, how was I to get in? I had no contacts to assist me. After failed attempts at finding a contact I gave up all hope of making hegira [migrating: in this case to Syria].”
He then decided to launch a series of bomb attacks in Melbourne; these he never carried out, but he eventually found a way into Syria. Within months of doing so, he became a suicide bomber for IS, blowing himself up in Ramadi, Iraq, in March 2015.
Bilardi’s case underscores the importance of real-world networks, which often help the transition into terrorism. This is why we see concentrations of fighters emerging from specific locations. A small cluster of people from the Manchester areas of Chorlton, Moss Side and Fallowfield, the area where Abedi was raised, have joined IS. Pull at the threads of his connections and a worrying picture emerges.
Abedi knew and was linked to perhaps one of the worst young men from Britain to have joined IS, Raphael Hostey, who took the nom de guerre Abu Qaqa al-Britani (it is worth pointing out that two British fighters took this name and they are frequently confused by the media). Even by IS’s depraved standards, Hostey was particularly doctrinaire and sadistic.
Within weeks of arriving in Syria, towards the end of 2013, Hostey was shot in the foot while fighting in Deir az-Zour province. His recovery was slow, involving multiple operations in makeshift field hospitals run by IS surgeons.
Unable to fight, Hostey was confined to the back room. There he concentrated on propaganda, recruitment and inspiring attacks at home, something that suited his personality, as he fancied himself as an intellectual of sorts.
He was part of a network of fighters from Manchester, including Anil Raoufi and Mohammed Javeed. The group travelled to Turkey together after Javeed’s elder brother, Jamshed, gave them £1,400 to buy tickets. Jamshed Javeed was arrested for trying to join IS, too, after his family called the police.
Hostey’s group is connected to two more, one from Portsmouth and the other from Cardiff. The Portsmouth cluster was led by Ifthekar Jaman, who became the most prolific and significant IS recruiter in the country. Without him, the other prospective jihadis from Portsmouth, Cardiff and Manchester would probably have found it much harder to make the journey.
Jaman initiated a chain reaction of exponential recruitment – akin to a pyramid selling scheme – in which each one of his recruits would recruit another group of people. This is the pattern of mobilisation apparent across the country and it explains why groups of fighters are often concentrated in some communities and areas.
It is not only in Britain that this pattern occurs. More than 59 people affiliated with Sharia4Belgium, an international chapter of a group founded in Britain by Anjem Choudary, travelled to Syria, most of its members originating from the geographical axis of Antwerp, Mechelen, Vilvoorde and Brussels. The same is true in Sweden, where 11 fighters were identified as having resided in two small neighbouring suburbs of Gothenburg – Angered and Bergsjön.
When the Dutch intelligence service, AIVD, investigated Sharia4Holland, it concluded that such movements create “an environment in which people with similar ideas meet and develop radical ideas into jihadist ideologies. This group dynamic has led to a rapid radicalisation of many individuals as well as concrete attempts to join the jihad in Syria.”
Many of the fighters maintain contact with friends back home who, as a result, are far more likely to engage in terrorist activity of some kind. It is precisely from within this kind of milieu that Abedi and his deadly plot emerged.
Given that IS has decided to prioritise terror attacks, its Western members are now focusing their efforts on this, rather than winning new recruits to fight in Syria or Iraq. When an IS gunman opened fire on a beach in Tunisia in 2015, killing 38 people (including 30 Britons), one of the Cardiff fighters was quick to glorify the assault.
Nasser Muthana said the incident “cures the hearts of the believers and angers the hearts of the kaffir [disbelievers]”. He wanted to see more attacks of this sort and posted pictures of himself at an Isis bomb-making factory, showing more than 30 improvised devices. “So the UK is afraid I come back with the skills I’ve gained?” he asked when he uploaded the picture to Twitter.
This is the challenge facing Britain’s security services. One of the main aims pursued by politicians after the 11 September 2001 attacks was to close down terrorist safe havens. The idea was that terrorists should be denied ungoverned spaces where they could train and from which they could launch deadly attacks across the world as they had done in the United States.
Abedi’s attack shows just how far we are from achieving this goal. France’s interior minister, Gérard Collomb, has already claimed that Abedi had “proven links” to Syria but has not elaborated on the nature of the connection, or its form. The implication, of course, is that he was a returning foreign fighter, and yet this seems unlikely. What is more probable is that his Syrian connections are limited to having known members of these foreign-fighter clusters, but that his actual training took place elsewhere – in Libya, the country his parents left to come to Britain.
There is little solace in this. Although our attention and resources are understandably focused principally on Syria, the unravelling of the global order has touched more than the Levant. North Africa is once again a permissive environment for terrorists, with militant groups proliferating across Libya and parts of the Egyptian Sinai. Lawless environments in which terrorists operate have also deepened across the Horn of Africa and Yemen.
Britain cannot insulate itself completely against the febrile global climate or such convulsions. They pose a severe challenge to our security apparatus, one for which there can be no quick fixes.
The crisis of governance in the Middle East and beyond has provided a boon to violent non-state actors, extending the threat from international terrorism for at least a generation, maybe even longer.
This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning