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Manchester, an 18 per cent Muslim city in the cross-hairs of terrorism

The multi-cultural city in north-west England is better known for its soccer prowess, so why is it a target of terrorists?
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24 May 2017 – 09:11 AM EDT
Muslims are among the mourners in Manchester after Monday night's suicide bombing outside a pop concert that killed 22 people and injured more than 100. Crédito: Reuters

By targeting children and youths attending a pop concert, the suicide bombing Monday night in Manchester will be remembered as one of the most callous ever perpetrated in Britain.

However, beyond that despicable detail, there is little surprise over another terrorist attack in a country that has lived with the threat of terrorism for many years.

Nor are the 22 dead and more than 100 injured at Manchester Arena a record.

Previously it was the IRA (Irish Republican Army) that bombed British cities for decades, before disbanding in 2015.

The IRA's motives were cloaked in a historical struggle for independence, tinged by religious differences that divided Catholics in Northern Ireland from Protestant rule in Britain.

Now, the British have grown sadly accustomed to the latest brand of terrorism, also a product of a colonial past with blurry religious associations.

Better known as home to two of the world's soccer powerhouses - Manchester United and Manchester City - the city is no stranger to terrorism itself.

In June 1996, the IRA detonated a powerful truck bomb on Corporation Street in the center of Manchester, just a few blocks from the site of Monday’s Ariana Grande pop concert.

The 1996 attack caused devastating damage injuring 200 people but causing no deaths. It could have been much worse as the IRA had sent telephoned warnings about 90 minutes before the bomb detonated.

An iconic red postal box that survived the bombing still stands at the scene with a brass plaque recalling the attack.

In 2005 four young Muslim suicide bombers with backpacks full of explosives attacked central London, killing 52 people and injuring hundreds more. It was the worst single terrorist atrocity on British soil. The four were from Leeds, a city just 40 miles from Manchester.

In 2009 British and American intelligence services foiled an alleged plot by al-Qaeda to blow up the Arndale Centre, a large shopping mall also located near Monday’s attack. The alleged plot involved a large car bomb as well as suicide bombers waiting to detonate themselves with evacuees from the mall. The conspiracy also involved a plot to attack the New York subway.

A Pakistani student, Abid Naseer, 28, was jailed in 2015 in New York for 40 years after being convicted of the plot.

Threat level

The U.K. threat level from international terrorism was raised Tuesday to the highest level of "critical," meaning further attacks may be imminent, Prime Minister Theresa May said.

The move came after she said investigators were unable to rule out Manchester bombing suspect Salman Abedi, a 22 year-old of Libyan descent who was born in the U.K, acted alone.

The official threat level had stood at "severe" since August 2014 - indicating that an attack was "highly likely."

Terrorism experts point out that British cities like Manchester, with large Muslim populations, are statistically far more likely to experience an Islamic-related terror attack than equivalent sized cities in the United States.

According to the 2014 U.K. census, Manchester’s population is almost 18 percent Muslim. Other cities such as Bradford, Birmingham and Leicester, have even higher Muslim populations, mostly dating back to waves of immigration in the mid-20th century after Britain’s empire collapsed in places like Pakistan and Bangladesh.

According to census estimates, the total population of Muslims in the U.K. was estimated to have risen to more than three million (5.4 percent) in 2014, of which about half were born overseas.

One of the city's storied soccer clubs, Manchester City, is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. The team plays at Etihad Stadium, named after the Emirates airline.

The 2005 attack was the first clear sign that Britain faced a new threat from home-grown terrorists. Three of the suicide bombers were second-generation sons of immigrants from Pakistan. The fourth was of Jamaican descent.

Muslim integration

The 2005 London attacks raised troubling questions about Muslim integration in Britain. Some blamed Asian parents who came to the United Kingdom but never embraced British culture, thinking one day they would return home. In some households where parents clung to a foreign culture, children grew up alienated from mainstream British society.

In many ways Manchester is a symbol of the cultural shift Britain has experience over the last half century. The birthplace of the liberal newspaper The Guardian, and the cradle of the so-called "Industrial Revolution" in the 18th and 19th centuries that ushered in the modern, urban age of factory life, Manchester has long played a vital role in the country's cultural and intellectual life.

Britain will surely be forced to consider security improvements in response to this month's attacks.

With the raised terror threat level, military personnel are already being deployed to protect key sites. Military personnel may also be seen at other events, such as concerts, the prime minister said.

Some conservative analysts, especially in the United States, argue that Britain also needs to take a tougher approach to immigration, following the lead of President Donald Trump.

But it's hard to see Britain following suit, even in the current post-Brexit mood of questioning Britain's ties to Europe. Britain already has stricter immigration policies in place than the United States. British law does not allow automatic citizenship at birth for non-citizens, for example.

Many also fear a climate of racial mistrust. The British media is hailing the fact that some of the doctors and nurses who treated the dying and injured on Monday were Muslims, as were many taxi drivers who gave free rides to those fleeing the concert arena.

Indeed, after so many decades of integration, Britain may have gone too far down the road of diversity and multi-culturalism to step back now.

(David Adams is a British journalist based in Miami. He began his career as an intern at the Manchester Evening News in 1984.)