Manchester is a reminder that the West is failing to prevent terror attacks, and how data banks can help
John Patkin says debate over whether authorities missed warnings about the Manchester bomber underlines the need to consolidate data through programmes that can flag and monitor suspects, and so pre-empt any attacks
The Manchester terror attack brought condemnation from world leaders, candlelight vigils, social media tributes and a string of arrests, along with debate on Islamophobia and whether the attacker was known to authorities.
The modern-day Islamic terrorism experienced by the West is carried out by two distinct types of attacker. The first is a resourceful group or individual, and the second is a lone wolf. An organised attack such as the one in Manchester involved research about the event and venue, as well as the money and skills to build the bomb. A lone wolf, on the other hand, may be motivated by personal frustration and choose a convenient weapon, such as a knife. While organised attacks will have an advance target, a lone wolf may choose a victim at random.
The UK and its Western allies boast of having prevented more attacks than we will ever know, yet there is no evidence of this. Where are the high-profile raids, arrests, prosecutions and sentences? The public relations suggests hundreds of attacks have been avoided, so there should be long court lists of terrorism-related cases.
And it’s not like suspects have been whisked away to some secret detention centre. If suspected terrorists evaporated out of society, human rights agencies, relatives, friends and associates would start social media campaigns.
The reality is that governments and their intelligence agencies are doing a pathetic job. Recent organised attacks have been carried out by people who had been under surveillance and had similar profiles, yet were deemed innocuous. Isn’t that enough to show a pattern of behaviour?
If Facebook can suggest friends and YouTube recommend videos, why is it so hard for Western governments to identify the traits of a terrorist?
The West needs to backtrack in its approach to terrorism by employing a combination of statistical and observational data. At present, physical security forces are on the back foot, guarding targets in their most vulnerable position before an attack, and IT resources are deployed for cybercrime.
Instead, they need to consolidate data at a much earlier stage through programmes that can identify and flag suspects who could be more closely monitored electronically or if they go off-grid.
There’s nothing scary or invasive here, as the private sector does the same thing to analyse our credit record or travel habits.
The West is still in a war that started on September 11, 2001 and if we continue to respond to terror instead of preventing it, we will lose more of our freedom. Let’s honour the victims by being better prepared and informed of the risks before they become critical.
John Patkin is a research assistant at the Education University of Hong Kong