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As a Mancunian, I feel the trauma. As a father, I feel the families’ pain. As a Muslim, this evil disgusts me; it cannot be the “new normal”. The Manchester Arena suicide bomber has been named as 22-year-old British-born Salman Abedi, who grew up yards from the girls’ high school which became infamous when, in 2015, pupils and twins Zahra and Salma Halane fled their homes to join the Islamic State in Syria. We’ve seen this in Manchester before, and there are parts of our city and great nation suffering at the hands of extremist networks.
Whether Abedi was a self-starter acting alone, part of a terror cell, or received assistance remains to be seen. Whichever turns out to be true, though Isil is inching towards its territorial death in Syria and Iraq, we must not delude ourselves that this phenomenon is on the way out.
The global jihadist insurgency is thriving; Islamist extremism remains the single biggest threat we face.
What makes this mutation from “domestic” caliphate-building to “foreign” suicide terrorism so volatile is that it is no longer based on a perceived physical or political threat, but is purely based on a hyper-ideological struggle. Any way of life that stands in opposition with their twisted world-view is immediately marked as a target. This is why so many attacks – in Manchester, Istanbul, Orlando, and Paris – occur in places like nightclubs and concert venues.
The fact that this attack comes three or four days ahead of the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan is no coincidence. Historically, we know that Isil and its kin encourage their followers to ramp up offensive operations during this time. Last May, an Isil spokesman said that jihadists should “make it, with God’s permission, a month of pain for infidels everywhere”.
Another extremist manual stated: “Don’t forget Ramadan is close, the month of victories.” And a month of pain it was, as attacks ripped through Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad, where more than 140 people died in a busy marketplace full of families.
Likewise, the jihadists’ fetish for anniversaries should not go unnoticed, this moment of barbarity arriving four years to the day after Drummer Lee Rigby’s murder at the hands of terrorists.
Our political parties too need to take this threat more seriously. While the mutually decided break to campaigning is respectful and welcome, it will only be worthwhile if followed by strong, committed leadership from politicians. Barely 30 words appear on counter-terror in the three major parties’ manifestos – hardly the practical solutions and razor-sharp focus that the single biggest threat to our way of life warrants.
I want to hear more from them as to how they will support the security services. Our intelligence agencies are monitoring up to 3,500 potential terror suspects in the UK at any given time. With numbers like these, it is humanly impossible to watch every move of every suspect; someone is bound to sneak through. Are they under-resourced?
What about the commitment to empower civil society to tackle radicalisation? These individuals don’t just wake up one day and decide to bomb a concert full of children. There is a process of radicalisation and then a process of planning the attack – this doesn’t occur overnight, there are many opportunities for us, as citizens and community members, to intervene. The British Muslim community, to which I belong, needs to be one of our first ports of call in the fight against extremism.
Enough is enough, and it is time for British Muslims to rise to the occasion and self-diagnose the malaise that is seeping through our community. It is not enough to simply distance our faith from these monsters, we must categorically refute the Islamist ideology that fuels their twisted world-view. We must take back control of our own narrative by holding our community, our religious leaders, and our mosques accountable when they say something that just doesn’t sound right.
We need to stop playing childish games and treating the Government as if it is our enemy, and must instead work together and collaborate on counter-extremism programmes such as Prevent.
The next government must support British Muslims, and other sectors of society, to do so.
There are plenty of successful strategies around the world to emulate. Why aren’t our leaders pledging to learn from the Dutch prison system, from Canadian models of integration, from Scandinavian deradicalisation programmes, all of which represent best in class standards.
While calls for unity and solidarity are important, we must do more. This will not be defeated with platitudes alone. We cannot allow this recurrent cycle of terrorism to occur, and we cannot let this become our new normal – the possibility of a child going to a concert and not returning is not one that can or should be entertained in our country.
Haras Rafiq is Chief Executive of Quilliam, a Counter-Extremism Organisation