Good News and Bad News After Manchester

After Britain raised its terror threat level to critical in the aftermath of the suicide bombing in Manchester, understandable anxiety resulted. The suspect, Salman Abedi, acted as a “mule” for the terrorist network responsible for the attack. In other words, multiple individuals planned and coordinated the attack in advance, including at least one person besides Abedi who homemade the suicide bomb.

How worrisome is the revelation that Abedi operated as part of a network? On this front there is both good news and bad news. Terrorist networks are not, as a rule, ruthless and efficient violent machines. They have bugs, so to speak, which counter-terrorism efforts quickly exploit to disrupt the network and arrest their key participants. On the other hand, the ability of Abedi’s network to move from generating lone wolf terrorism to organized attacks should sound alarms in the counter-terrorism community.

First, the bad news. We know that collective action is difficult. Many people have anger and grievances which make them want to commit violence. Lone wolf attacks offer the easiest channel for an individual to use violence against the target of their grievance. Identifying and organizing like-minded individuals to carry out violence is far harder. Even two individuals working together to plan an attack crosses a dangerous Rubicon for governments: the individuals overcame barriers to collective action, having sufficient incentive to trust each other and sustain long-run cooperation.

Religious terrorism is particularly able to induce this cooperation, because of the commitment mechanisms required to join. Members sink costs into their participation, and defect far less often. Religious terrorism in Afghanistan, for example, would be more likely than religious terrorism in a developed state, because prospective terrorists have fewer outside options for education and careers. When Western-born, university-educated individuals, like Salman Abedi, are willing to give up everything to strap on and detonate a bomb, this suggests the “pull” factors into the terrorist group are particularly strong (not to mention the “push” factors of a hostile political environment).

Next, the good news. Collective action, at least in the early stages in which it appears to be with the Abedi network, is very fragile. The British government moved quickly to arrest additional suspects and raised the costs of coordinating another attack by deploying troops to strategic sites around the country. By tightening these screws, the government compromises the security of the terrorist network and reduces its operational effectiveness. As the network goes increasingly underground, trust and reciprocity between network members becomes harder, and eventually the group will no longer surmount the barriers to collective action. They will end up with idle grievances or, at worst, become lone wolf attackers.

The British government should worry that a terrorist network solved the collective action problem long enough to carry out this attack without being disrupted. On the other hand, its immediate counter-terrorism actions should disrupt the network quickly enough to prevent another attack occurring at the hands of the same group.

One final puzzle remains: how did the authorities know of Abedi’s terrorist leanings as early as 2011, yet still he traveled overseas and gained the skills necessary to carry out the attack? Recent political science research indicates that democracies are much more likely to respond to violent events than to prevent them, because of the penalty a democratic government would pay for violating civil liberties through preventive repression.

More democratic states are therefore locked into playing a game of whack-a-mole against terrorism: responding only when sufficient proof of a planned attack emerges or an attack is carried out. Rather than give up civil liberties to address this problem, there are two general policy approaches democratic states should take:

(1) Address underlying collective grievances which produce terrorism, and

(2) Make sure individuals at risk of radicalization have good outside options

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