The Manchester attack: analysing Brendan O’Neil’s response through a counterterrorism lens

Manchester stands united
(source –

Needless to say I am shocked and abhorred by the attack last night in Manchester, and my sincerest thoughts go to all those affected, and most of all to the friends and family who mourn the loss of a loved one.

What I would like to talk about here, however, is one particular response that is symptomatic of a wider set of attitudes pervasive throughout the UK that manifest in the wake of such awful events. Specifically I would like to address Brendan O’Neil’s arguments that it is ‘time for anger’. Indeed, I am angry Brendan, I’m angry at many things, and one of the things I am currently angry at is your asinine and reactionary response that at best levels backlash at innocent people, serving as a scapegoat for your wider political agenda, and at worst facilitates a divided society that empowers and entrenches the groups and networks that propagate this violence.

In case people (rather understandably) don’t want to read O’Neil’s parochial disquisition, let me summaries. O’Neil brings three core points in his piece:

1) that there is a media and government driven conspiracy to subdue and police our emotions to protect teh m00slims, culminating in a ‘post-terror’ world, and that this is somehow linked to a slew of other political agendas (such as multiculturalism and pro-immigration).

2) that there is a ‘duel assault’ on the ‘individual and society’, by both the government/media and their ‘unwitting cousins’, the terrorist groups, that physically harms us and diminishes our capacity to carry out some sort of social duty to confront atrocities though anger.

3) an underlying implication that we should be rejecting notions of ‘unity’ and, through anger, identify and single out groups we feel might have some link towards the terrorist group responsible.

Seeing as O’Neil evidently cannot comprehend that protecting innocent people from backlash and blame for atrocities over extremely weak links such as ethnicity/religion/culture/origin is generally morally good, how about I address this issue from the perspective of counterterrorism 101? Let’s lay out a couple of basic facts before I start:

1) after any such atrocity, there is almost always significant backlash against those who share even an iota of the same identity of the responsible individual/network/group (such as religion/ethnicity), regardless of their actual (and almost exclusively non-existent) links with the perpetrators.

2) these groups are usually already marginalised within society (such as the Catholic community in Norther Ireland, Muslims in the UK, Sunni Muslims in post-invasion Iraq and the Tamil population in Sri Lanka).

3) even the most apocalyptic and violent terrorist groups rely on some sort of localised support, either for funding, recruitment or more tacit disengagement with those bodies trying to counter them (the IRA relied on disengagement between the Catholic community and British forces to operate unimpeded in Northern Ireland and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam relied on the Tamil population for recruits, to name but two examples).

4) subsequently, one of the most effective and tested counterterrorism strategies has been to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of a population relied on for either active or passive support. Support and opposition for terrorist groups fluctuates dependent on either positive or negative engagement with the communities in which they derive support.

This is hardly groundbreaking analysis; positive engagement with a marginalised demographic central to a terrorist group undermines the group’s resources (both physical, rhetorical and spatial), as happened with the Real Irish Republican Army following the Northern Ireland peace deal. Negative engagement with a marginalised demographic at the very least creates a divide between the security services targeting the terrorist group and the demographic necessary to the group’s operations, hindering intelligence efforts; such as following the introduction of the internment to counter the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

So how does this analysis apply to O’Neil’s logic (or lack thereof)? You will have to excuse me for jumping to conclusions since no solid information has been released about the perpetrators of last night’s attacks, but if they are muslims then we need to consider the following points:

1) muslims are already marginalised within almost all discourses within the UK.

2) innocent muslims will most likely be targeted for backlash over the Manchester attacks, something that O’Neil is encouraging further.

3) security services rely on cooperation with muslim communities to prevent attacks in the name of violent Islamism from occurring.

4) when this backlash occurs, and is exacerbated by the vacuous ramblings of reactionaries such as O’Neil, our underfunded and stretched security services face a choice: divert resources to protecting innocent muslim communities and face backlash from those like O’Neil, or focus on current operations and risk loosing the trust and support of the muslim communities relied on for intelligence. At the very least, O’Neil’s calls for anger will make the state of affairs much harder for our security services. This is best case scenario

5) if the anger O’Neil seeks to unleash becomes so great that the government are prompted into swiftly introducing emergency legislation, that formally legislates heavy-handed responses targeting innocent populations (as happened with internment), then the demographic central to the efforts of our security services not only lose trust in them for failing to protect them, but may even come to see them as an enemy. A past example of this failure would be the British Army’s alienation of the Catholic population by working with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and introducing internment/diplock courts brandished them as enemies, reducing cooperation even further.

Brendan O’Neil wonders why we are encouraged to adopt mantras of ‘unity’ and restraint over who we level our anger at, and the answer to this is simple: because it works. To succumb to irrational hatred, to be subsumed by anger and to direct these feelings towards innocent people has, as history has proven, only ever harmed us and stagnated counterterrorism. The British government’s internment policy in Northern Ireland, born out of anger at the Provisional IRA, targeted innocent civilians and subsequently increased the group’s capacities. Failing to learn from past mistakes, the British government, again responding to the anger of a public abhorred at Al-Qaeda, modified the Prevent program to disproportionately target BME/muslim men, the very people we needed on our side to counter the group’s influence. What Brendan O’Neil, in calling for anger fuelled backlash is really going to achieve, is the same mistakes again. At the very least, our security services will be forced to choose between protecting innocents and perusing the perpetrators, and at worst the pressure will cause more irrational and ineffective policy that further divides our society and strengthens those who would harm us.

It is fine to be angry, and believe me, I am very angry at the attack committed in Manchester. However, if we are irrational, if we seek to unleash our anger based on the call-to-arms of reactionary vigilantes like O’Neil, we only harm innocent people in the short run, and our entire society over time.


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