If every criminal has a back story, the horrific terror attack that happened May 22 in Manchester, England, was preceded by a sordid mystery novel combining depression, social ostracization, radicalization and multigenerational hate — exactly the kind of story the Islamic State (IS) seeks to prey upon and publicize.
As the investigation into British-born Libyan suicide bomber Salman Abedi continues, the question of whether Abedi was acting alone or affiliated with a larger scheme likely holds the key to unlocking his motivations and the geostrategic significance of his act. Was his crime motivated by his gang connections, his social marginalization or his family’s long history within Libya’s tight-knit activist Salafi movements? Abedi’s back story may represent a unique combination of these elements, but it fits firmly within a similar pastiche of other young people who, due to personal predilections and psychological problems on the one hand and familial and social connections on the other, fall easily into the radical Islamist milieu.
IS media was quick to claim responsibility for the attack, but there is scant evidence that Abedi was acting on IS’ direct orders. That is not how terrorism in 2017 works — millennials are the “me” generation, prone to doing things their own way. IS is capitalizing on their initiative. While Abedi’s bomb-making technique matches IS’ trademark methods in previous attacks, the complexity of its construction, including a backup triggering mechanism, exceeds those of the past. In short, Abedi did not seem to be a novice making a bomb by following a YouTube video tutorial. This should come as no surprise given his multiple trips back and forth to Libya — where his family is widely associated with the Salafi jihadi movement. His trips provided ample opportunity for such advanced training and the ability to operationalize his prior contacts in Manchester.