Manchester bombing shows the odds stacked against Britain’s security services

That the Manchester bomb plot itself failed to register on MI5’s radar is a chilling reminder that, in this war on terror, the terrorists only have to be lucky once.

The wreckage of a double-decker bus with its top blown off at Tavistock Square in central London in the July 7, 2005 terror attacks. The UK security services have undergone a major overhaul since then. AP Photo/Sang Tan, File
Powered by automated translation

London // After British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and members of her cabinet narrowly escaped death at the hands of an IRA bomb in Brighton in October 1984, the IRA issued a chilling statement, the grim truth of which will be echoing loudly today through the ranks of the British security services.

“Today we were unlucky,” said the Northern Ireland terror group. “But remember, we only have to be lucky once; you will have to be lucky always.”

Last night in Manchester, the luck of Britain’s vaunted and vigilant security services finally ran out.

Today, two decades on from the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which saw a negotiated end to the Troubles and the IRA, Britain, along with the rest of the world, is facing a different form of terrorism, with which no negotiation is possible.

As the landscape of terror has shifted, so MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, has adapted and changed almost beyond recognition, pursuing an aggressive recruitment policy that has seen its ranks swollen by bright young school leavers and graduates from minority communities.

Current job vacancies tell the story. MI5 is currently looking for Arabic-speaking foreign language analysts “whose roles go well beyond translation and transcription … to provide intelligence insights to deliver clear analysis which will assist your colleagues in driving forward investigations”.

Anyone aged 18 or over, born in Britain and with at least one parent with “substantial ties to the UK”, can apply for the job which, with a starting salary of £28,335 (Dh135,000), is highly competitive for graduates and non-graduates alike.

There are other vacancies, for speakers of Persian, Sylheti — a dialect of Bengali language spoken in parts of south Asia including Bangladesh — and Sorani, a Kurdish language. Other vital hires are mobile surveillance officers whose job, to follow suspects and leads on foot and by car, requires that they “blend … into your surroundings [to] gather information and intelligence that will feed directly into the operation you are working on”.

MI5 saw a massive recruitment drive after the last bomb attack on the British mainland — the attacks in London on July 7, 2005, that saw 52 people killed in a series of blasts on three underground trains and a bus. Recruitment began in earnest in January 2006, when MI5’s budget was boosted and hundreds of new officers were taken on in counter-terrorism roles.

At the same time, major police forces began working to increase the proportion of staff with ethnic backgrounds.

Ironically, in 2005 it was revealed that MI5 was scrambling to open offices in northern towns and cities with large ethnic populations, including Manchester. “The front line”, commented Eliza Manningham-Buller, the director general of MI5 at the time, was no longer “just in the Middle East or South East Asia”.

Like France’s General Directorate for Internal Security, battle-hardened by decades of domestic terrorism, Britain’s MI5 has become highly efficient at traditional counter-terrorism, picking up key words and indicative patterns in “chatter”, either on mobile phone networks, email or the internet.

This is a vital skill in the modern world, and one traded widely between nations with common enemies.

It is also a prized asset, as highlighted in March this year when MI6, Britain’s external security service, made an unprecedented public statement dismissing as “untrue … and absurd” claims that its monitoring abilities had been used to spy on Donald Trump.

Such techniques, however, offer little protection against “lone wolf” attacks by crazed or sociopathic individuals. All that can be done is to harden potential targets — although, in a tourist-packed city like London, where does one start? A strong, visible security presence, such as seen on the streets of France, may act as a deterrence or, as in the case of attacks on soldiers guarding the Louvre in Paris, as a provocation for further attacks.

Britain has had its share of lone wolf attacks, often by deranged individuals inspired but not directed by ISIL (which is, nevertheless, always quick to claim the attacker as one of its “soldiers”).

Khalid Masood, who on March 17 ran over and killed five pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing to death a police officer outside the British parliament, had no links to terror groups but had sent a WhatsApp message saying he was avenging western military action in the Middle East.

Since 7/7, British security services have staved off a series of potential terrorist outrages, witnessed an average of one terror-related arrest every day for the past year and a steady parade of individuals through the courts.

Just last month, armed police raided a home in north London, arresting six people and shooting a seventh to foil an “active plot”, following a surveillance operation.

One of the most shocking incidente since 7/7 was the hacking to death of Fusilier Lee Rigby by extremists in a London street exactly four years to the day before the Manchester concert attack. But this, though it involved two attackers, was essentially an unsponsored lone wolf attack. When it comes to organised, planned conspiracies, the system works.

All this has shown that the system works. Until now, since 7/7 Britain has been spared the type of attack that left 130 dead in Paris on November 13, 2015.

There are, of course, parallels in the Manchester attack with that dreadful night, during which young people were targeted by a bomb during a concert at the Bataclan hall.

But Britain has been spared the form of terrorism that ensued in Paris — perhaps because of the difficulty of smuggling weapons into the island of Britain, perhaps because of the professionalism of the security services, the UK has so far seen no marauding attacks by gunmen armed with automatic weapons.

Last night, however, Britain experienced what many in the security forces believed was inevitable — a large attack which, by its very nature, almost certainly involved a conspiracy by a number of players.

In days to come, it may emerge that one or more of those involved was already known to the security services. If so, the recriminations, just two weeks from a general election, will be long and loud.

But the fact that the plot itself failed to register on MI5’s radar is a chilling reminder that, in this war on terror as in any other, the terrorists only have to be lucky once.