Politics & Government

Manchester attack opens the door for Trump’s anti-terrorism message

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks President Donald Trump to board Air Force One, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walks President Donald Trump to board Air Force One, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. AP

A suicide attack Monday at an Ariana Grande concert that killed 22 people in Manchester, England, has thrown Europe into a deeper quandary over how best to prevent such attacks just days before President Donald Trump is scheduled to arrive to call for unity in the terrorism fight.

Trump is expected to bring up the attacks in meetings with NATO and European Union allies as an example of why allies must do more to fight terrorists.

During a speech at the Israel Museum on Tuesday, the president offered condolences to the victims and called for “all civilized nations” to unite in the effort to crush hateful ideology.

“I repeat again that we must drive out the terrorists and the extremists from our midst, obliterate this evil ideology, and protect and defend our citizens and people of the world,” Trump said.

On Tuesday, British authorities identified the suicide bomber as 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a Manchester-born resident, and they raised the threat level to critical, meaning another attack might be imminent.

CBS News reported that Abedi had been known to British authorities prior to the attack.

If someone told me as a child that I would live in such a mess, I would be horrified by it.

Lydia Fischbuch, 25, medical student

The attack resonated across Europe, where some residents say they’ve become accustomed to terrorist attacks.

“It’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s not something you should get used to,” said Lydia Fischbuch, a 25-year-old medical student interviewed outside the Brussels Central Train Station.

At Downing Street in London, Prime Minister Theresa May called the attack one of the worst acts of terrorism in the country’s history.

“All acts of terrorism are cowardly attacks on innocent people, but this attack stands out for its appalling, sickening cowardice – deliberately targeting innocent, defenseless children and young people who should have been enjoying one of the most memorable nights of their lives,” she said.

Authorities have not yet provided a timeline of how the attack took place. But one U.S. expert questioned why security wasn’t greater at the arena given the similarities to an attack in Paris in November 2015, when three gunmen entered the Bataclan concert hall and killed at least 90 people.

“The Bataclan should have changed Europe significantly,” said the expert, a former senior federal official who worked on counterterrorism and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

President Donald Trump offered his condolences to the families of victims of the deadly explosion at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester on Monday evening, which killed 22 people and injured dozens more.

He praised May for increasing the threat level because even if the perpetrator had acted only from inspiration from a terror group, he may have had a confederate or two. But he said European nations still did not share information on terror networks as they should.

“The EU counterterrorism strategy does not embrace the kind of information-sharing we have between federal, state and local,” he said, speaking of the United States. “We are much safer than the EU,” an observation that echoed a statement from the Department of Homeland Security that said there were no known threats against concert venues in the United States.

Trump is due in Brussels on Wednesday after stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and Rome, and he is expected to take part in multilateral meetings with European allies where the Manchester attack is certain to be discussed.

“Everybody is going to be sitting around that table a couple days after this tragic event saying, ‘This is why it’s so important,’ ” said Lisa Sawyer Samp, a senior fellow in the International Security Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served President Barack Obama as director for NATO and European strategic affairs at the National Security Council. “It’s not that they need to. . . . There is no shortage of terrorist attacks happening in Europe right now.”

But she said it was unclear what additional steps European leaders could take to lessen their vulnerability. Most counterterrorism work is conducted within individual countries, and it’s unclear what Trump might propose to make NATO an effective counterterrorism force.

In a message on the internet service Telegram, later reported by the SITE intelligence group, the Islamic State claimed credit for the Manchester attack. But experts said they suspected Abedi had acted on his own.

“My hunch is that it’s an inspired lone wolf,” said Victor Asal, a University at Albany political scientist who is affiliated with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, a network of scholars.

Trump campaigned on the idea that the United States could prevent terrorism by limiting Muslim immigrants to the country. He has since backed off those comments, but he issued an executive order that temporarily banned travelers from six Muslim-majority countries. The courts have since blocked the order after officials in Washington state and Hawaii called it discriminatory.

The Manchester attack shows what no travel ban would have taken into account: Radicalized homegrown terrorists are a greater threat than foreign-born terrorists.

An analysis by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), a research program associated with the University of Chicago, looked at 125 individuals who either were indicted by the Justice Department in connection with Islamic State-related crimes or who would have been indicted had they not died perpetrating terrorist attacks in the United States or fighting for the Islamic State on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria.

Of those studied, 81 percent were U.S. citizens, with 78 percent of them born in the United States. Another 11 percent were green-card holders – permanent residents. Only 8 percent weren’t U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

The Manchester attack was just the latest in a series of European terrorist incidents.

In April, a Paris policeman was killed and two officers seriously injured by an extremist shooting on the Champs-Élysées. In March, a London attacker mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing two men and two women and injuring many others. The driver crashed his car, then stabbed a police officer to death.

Thirty-two people were killed in a March 2016 attack by three suicide bombers at the Brussels Airport and a city transit station.

In November 2015, 130 people were killed in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, including the assault on the Bataclan.

It’s not just Muslim attackers who are besieging Europe. The Police Service of Northern Ireland reported last year that there had been 52 bomb attacks in a 12-month period by the Irish Republican Army and paramilitary groups.

Since last year’s attacks, residents here say their lives have taken on a new normal.

The Belgian government had already increased security for the NATO gathering, where Trump will participate in a ceremony to unveil the new NATO headquarters and sit down with leaders.

Belgian Interior Minister Jan Jambon told reporters in Vienna, where he was participating in a terrorism conference, that the government does not need to raise the threat level again as it was already at its highest level without a concrete time and place of an anticipated attack.

“Which is not the case,” he said, according to Flanders News in Belgium.

I repeat again that we must drive out the terrorists and the extremists from our midst, obliterate this evil ideology.

President Donald Trump

Everyone in Belgium remembers where they were on March 22, 2016, when the three suicide bombers struck. In addition to the dead, 320 were injured.

One of those killed was a friend of Lieselot Onclinx, 21, a dental technician student. Her stepsister was injured in one of the bombings, at a subway station in central Brussels.

“It changed my world,” Onclinx said.

She and others said they liked to think they were safer now but they didn’t necessarily feel that way as heavily armed soldiers, once almost nonexistent, roamed the streets and trains.

“If someone told me as a child that I would live in such a mess, I would be horrified by it,” Fischbuch said. “But since the attacks in Paris, which is quite close to Brussels in distance and culturally, I’ve been paralyzed. It changed my whole world.”

Tim Johnson contributed to this report.

Franco Ordoñez: 202-383-6155, @francoordonez