Manchester attack: By repeatedly targeting cultural spaces, Islamic State is trying to rob us of our freedom

Amid a flurry of investigation and arrests in the aftermath of the recent Manchester terror attack, a picture of Salman Abedi — the 22-year-old suicide bomber — is slowly developing. Abedi turned into sepulchre of death a Manchester Arena that was busy affirming life.

A link between him and Islamic State (IS) is becoming clearer. Circumstantial evidence is pointing towards Abedi being part of an elaborate terror network with likely ties to Syria and Libya.

Multiple reports quoting friends, neighbours, family members and members of the tightly-knit Libyan community in Manchester indicate that Abedi's radicalisation had something to do with the trouble in Libya, where his family played an active part in the resistance against Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

 Manchester attack: By repeatedly targeting cultural spaces, Islamic State is trying to rob us of our freedom

Security forces cordoned off the area following the Manchester Arena terror attack. AP

British media have reported that Moss Side, the part of Manchester favoured by Libyan expatriates, has "spawned a cluster of jihadis". A Financial Times report says that, "at least 16 young men have left the area to fight with IS, among them some of the group’s most prolific propagandists and networkers."

During the uprising against Gaddafi, many of these Manchester-based Libyans had moved to Libya to take up arms against the Gaddafi regime. Salman's father Ramadan had done so in 2011, when he joined a militia to fight against the dictator's forces and the teenager had fought alongside his dad.

The fall of Gaddafi led to a vacuum in the war-torn country, allowing IS to gain a foothold. It is possible, say investigators, that therein lie the roots of Abedi's radicalisation. Incidentally, a Libyan militia has arrested Abedi's younger brother Hashem, 20, on charges that he is linked to IS and knew of the plot. Abedi's father has also been arrested.

Wall Street Journal interviewed his sister Jomana and she came up with a grievance narrative — not unusual for family members of radicalised youths, who use such narratives as defence mechanisms to cope with the sudden turn of events and loss of loved ones. Abedi's sister said, "I think he saw children – Muslim children – dying everywhere, and wanted revenge… He saw the explosives America drops on children in Syria, and he wanted revenge."

This narrative, however, has been contested by other friends and acquaintances, who had reportedly tried to bring Abedi's turn towards radicalism to the authorities' attention. A BBC report says that some members of his community had "previously warned authorities about Abedi's extremism" and quoted a community support worker as saying, "several years ago, members of the public called an anti-terrorism hotline about Abedi after he publicly said 'he was supporting terrorism' and 'being a suicide bomber is ok'."

Independent quoted France's new interior minister Gerard Collomb as saying that "all of a sudden he (Abedi) travelled to Libya and then most likely to Syria, became radicalised and decided to commit this attack," going on to say that his link with "Daesh (IS) is proven".

A report in New York Times points out that investigators are still uncertain whether the 22-year-old was a "mule" (terror conduit), whether he had close contact with a now-deceased British recruiter for IS or whether he had any links with Abdul Ghwela, a radical preacher in Libya whose IS member son was killed during a fight in Benghazi.

The sophistication of the bomb that was detonated and the meticulous planning that went behind the blast make it unlikely that Abedi hatched the plot alone. Latest reports say Abedi's bomb was made using TATP, the same explosive that was used in the Paris and Brussels attacks. It is an IS signature that rules out the possibility that the Manchester carnage was a lone-wolf attack. Whatever may be the point of contact, there is little doubt that a poisonous ideology had radicalised a pot-smoking, soccer-loving 22-year-old into a closeted killer.

The larger question that emerges is, why would a middle-class Briton, who had had access to good education (Burnage Academy for Boys in Manchester; Manchester College; Salford University), suddenly turned towards radicalism?

The Financial Times report quoted director for international security studies at the RUSI think-tank and an expert on home-grown jihadis Raf Pantucci as saying that, "Abedi belonged to third generation radicals who have come to hate the very freedom and cultural motifs that defines western civilization because they are "focused on a much broader narrative of jihad and a global battlefield."

There was a devious motive behind targeting a pop concert – where young people leave behind their worries and come together to surrender to music and dance, celebrate the joys of living. A twisted ideology was sending a message that cult of death is bigger than an affirmation of life. The act was criminal and the intent deeply political.

At the centre of this existential battle are IS and its fellow travellers, who believe in a version of Islam that vows to drag us back into the middle ages by waging a civilisation clash. The world of IS is joyless, grey, resembling perhaps the insides of a tomb. It stands against every tenet of modern democracies and feels mortally threatened by the freedom that this world order guarantees us.

Ecstatic residents of the Syrian town Manbij, for instance, celebrated the fall of IS by shaving off their beards, burning their burqas, smoking and dancing in the streets after being freed.

IS knows this. It has therefore embarked on a cunning plan to force us to curb our freedom, compel us to give up our spaces and lead us into the narrow foyer of darkness where it resides. The IS ideologues have decided to attack cultural spaces — places we inhabit out of choice and pleasure, where we lower our guards to bond with others — with a motive that we stop ourselves from doing so out of fear and ultimately turn into joyless, demented souls like them.

According to William Braniff, Director of National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and the Responses to Terrorism in Bustle, "This kind of violence is meant to have the greatest psychological impact possible… There’s a psychological impact when soft targets are hit that makes you feel like a member of British society right now; that you could be targeted in the most innocent of settings.”

Terror assaults like the one in Manchester Arena at Ariana Grande's concert, Bastille Day attack in Nice, Bataclan theatre massacre in Paris, Orlando nightclub shooting, the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai or the carnage in Holey Artisan Bakery, Dhaka, are designed not just to kill people but to claim our public spaces. If every visit to a restaurant, hotel, nightclub, theatre, concert hall – places which define us as a living, throbbing, thriving community of humans – is accompanied by fear, then we cease to be who we are.

As Alyssa Rosenberg writes in The Washington Post, "surrounding movie theatres, concert venues, sporting stadiums and even restaurants with ever more oppressive layers of security might make us all safer. Tightly circumscribing the zones where we can truly feel free and relaxed reminds us just how small those areas have become, and how desperately we must fight to preserve them."

By attacking these public spaces and forcing us to relinquish our freedom, IS is throwing a challenge graver than any other battle that modern warfare can tackle. Our sophisticated weapons, drones and missiles are useless.

These are designed to target external enemies. We are helpless against an ideological attack that turns our cities from spaces of living to cubbyholes of paranoia.

On the one hand, we must our protect citizens and civilians from terrorism and on the other, we must resist closeting our open societies. This appears almost a theoretical impossibility.

For instance, British prime minister Theresa May has unleashed thousands of troops on British streets to "keep it safe". In doing so, she has done exactly what IS and its fellow travellers want. A heightened state of alertness and emergency that prevents citizens from being who they are. And yet, the security of citizens is paramount. The primary job of a government is to keep its citizens safe and ensure their well-being.

There are no easy answers to this puzzle. The strife is ultimately internal.

Updated Date: May 26, 2017 07:53:14 IST