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Why stopping terror attacks against soft targets is so hard

May 23, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
What does the deadly attack at an Ariana Grande concert in the United Kingdom mean for the global fight against terrorism? Hari Sreenivasan gets analysis from Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens of George Washington University and Michael Leiter, former director of the United States National Counterrorism Center.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As Manchester mourns and British military steps in to help with security, we turn now to what the attack says about the capabilities of terrorist groups.

For that, I’m joined by Michael Leiter. He was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center from 2007 to 2011 during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. And Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, research director of the Program on Extremism at the George Washington University.

Michael Leiter, I want to start with you.

The British intelligence agencies seem a little concerned that the name of the bomber was leaked by U.S. officials hours before British authorities made that public. Is that significant?

MICHAEL LEITER, Former Director, National Counterterrorism Center: I think it is, Hari.

As an investigator, you really don’t want to release information until you have a purpose in doing so. And as the British were clearly investigating other elements of this attack, or at least trying to determine whether there were additional people involved or potential follow-on attacks, it makes good sense that those investigators might want to keep that name behind the green curtain until they found use in disclosing it.

So, it’s unfortunate that information was disclosed, but, unfortunately, in this era of 24-hour news, keeping these investigations classified is obviously a challenge on both sides of the Atlantic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, you have studied jihadist groups in the U.K. and elsewhere. Are you surprised by this?

ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS, George Washington University: Unfortunately not.

This kind of thing has been coming for some time. I suppose the main surprise is the scale of it. We also had the Westminster attack just recently. Only four or five were people killed there. So, we considered this to be kind of what to expect in the U.K., was not in mainland Europe.

The access to sort of criminal networks wasn’t quite as easy as it was in mainland Europe. But, unfortunately, the scale is, I think, the surprise.

The fact that it’s happened, not at all, because, unfortunately, we have been making arrests in the U.K. for a long, long time, stopping plots like this repeatedly. Can’t stop them all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, Michael Leiter, as Alexander just mentioned, just two months ago, there was a stabbing attack that we all witnessed — or the aftermath that we witnessed on TV.

Is there a pattern here? It seems to have escalated from that to this.

MICHAEL LEITER: Well, I think there is clearly a pattern for ISIS throughout Western Europe. And that pattern is quite different from what we saw in the late 2000s from al-Qaida.

And I would really identify three significant changes for ISIS that are manifesting themselves again in all of Western Europe and the U.K.

First, there’s a pace and scale of radicalization that we really have not seen before, largely through the effective use of the Internet. Second, the operational approach of ISIS is so very different. Rather than large-scale attacks, they are actively pursuing and pushing people to stay where they are and attack in their homes.

And, third, the volume is simply overwhelming for security services, whether it’s the MI5 in the U.K. or the FBI here in the United States. The volume of threats that they have to face is making their jobs very difficult, and they simply can’t stay on an individual target indefinitely. And that makes them make some very difficult choices. And, unfortunately, sometimes, those choices end up not being the right ones.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, if you had to do a word association game with the word Manchester, most U.S. citizens would probably say the football club.

How did it get to be a hotbed for terrorist recruitment?

ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS: Well, the area that it appears the attacker, Abedi, came from is part of Southern Manchester. That is actually very near a real hub of radicalization in the U.K. called Moss Side.

It’s essentially an area, a sort of deprived area, a lot of gang activity. And what we have seen is a sort of morphing of sort of a gang culture into a jihadist culture, at least a fusing of those two cultures. And so, essentially, we have actually seen about 16 British individuals involved in some form of terrorist activity for I.S. coming from pretty much a three-mile radius.

So, whether or not this is relevant to the current investigation into Abedi is not yet clear, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw that he was somehow influenced by that wider network.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael Leiter, today, the prime minister escalated the threat level from severe to critical. That means it had been severe for so long.

But, unfortunately, even in the attacks around in Paris, we saw one of the attacks were outside a football stadium. Are these sort of attacks almost indefensible?

MICHAEL LEITER: To some extent, very regrettably, they are.

Counterterrorism officials can detect and disrupt some plots. And, often, defenses can be used to at least minimize what sort of casualties we have. But as we saw in this attack, as we saw in the attack in Turkey at the airport, as we saw in Brussels, the terrorists know where we have security measures, whether that’s airport screening or metal detectors entering the stadium.

And it’s not all that difficult to adjust your tactics, so you can still find large collections of individuals just outside the security perimeters. And you can push the security perimeters out some, but, ultimately, we live in open democratic societies that are not constantly policed.

So, in that sense, there will always be these soft targets, and security can only move us so far. A lot of this is going to come down to not just intelligence and defense, but engagement in these communities where we do have potential hot spots for radicalization.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And, Alexander, I want to ask you about that engagement in communities. How does this happen, that a British citizen, even he’s from Libyan descent, grows up there eating fish and chips like everybody else? What lures him into this ideology?

ALEXANDER MELEAGROU-HITCHENS: Well, one of the sort of cliches, but it is largely true, about that question — or the answer to that question is that every path to radicalization is unique.

Everyone has unique experiences that leads them to this kind of action, but there are some overarching issues. You mentioned he was a British citizen. He’s the son — he’s a second-generation British. And that is the most common target for radicalizers, because — and recruiters, because these guys, generally, they’re growing up in Britain.

They have a different culture to their parents. They don’t relate to their parents. They particularly don’t relate to their — the version of Islam their parents ascribe to.

So they are looking — they go out looking for a version that speaks to them, not culturally infused, say, in Libya or Pakistan or Bangladesh, one that speaks to them, one that talks about geopolitics, one that involves their day-to-day experiences.

And, unfortunately, jihadist sort of ideology and the jihadist version of Islam can sometimes look like the version these guys are looking for. It speaks to their day-to-day experiences.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens, Michael Leiter, thank you both.

MICHAEL LEITER: Thank you, Hari.