After Manchester Bombing: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Online

In the days following the terrorist bombing in Manchester, England, the worldwide reactions and dramatic events offer important lessons for the future. So what online and offline responses can we observe and learn from after such a terrorist attack?

by / May 26, 2017
AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

From England to California to Russia, the world was shocked by the horrific bombing that killed 22 and wounded 116 on Monday, May 22, 2017, in Manchester, United Kingdom. After the terrorist incident occurred outside the Manchester Arena, the terror threat level was raised to the highest possible. The U.K. military was on the streets all over the country, as fears of another incident were initially very high.

Reactions came from all over the world to this deadliest terrorist incident in the U.K. in more than a decade, along with the follow-on events that were all over the global map.

From the good to the bad to the ugly, stories poured in all week regarding related developments — scenes like the U.K. moment of silence in remembrance of the victims to Twitter outrage after Kay Burley, a Sky News host, continued speaking during the moment of silence to entire U.K. communities being on lockdown amid the heightened terror threat.

ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing, as world leaders across the globe condemned the deadly attack. From Jerusalem, President Donald Trump called the terrorists that were responsible “evil losers.” 

I’ve listed these sample items below (and yes there could be many more under each category) as examples of the kinds of online and offline reactions that occur after deadly terrorist attacks.

These are not predictions of what might happen. Rather, these are actual events that did happen offline and online after the Manchester bombing. We can and should learn from events to prepare for potential future terrorist attacks.

Good Stories, Please

There were heartwarming stories that brought a nation together to remember the victims.

Now the Bad News

However, there were many sobering stories online during the week.

Suicide bomber Salman Abedi is believed to have travelled to Syria and become radicalised before returning to the UK to cause carnage at a gig in the city where he was born. The son of Libyan parents, who reportedly fled their native country and sought refuge in the UK, he is thought to have come back to Britain from Libya just days before the massacre.

And the Ugly?

 Due to the global nature of these event, cyberspace was used for many unethical messages being spread.

Reactions from Politics to Education

One other major aspect of this situation is the amount of political posturing occurring from the Conservatives and Labor Party as an election draws closer in the U.K.

For example, Jeremy Corbyn said that the war on terror is simply not working (note U.K. spelling):

“Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services, have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries and terrorism here at home,” he said.

His comments drew immediate criticism from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, with Sir Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, accusing Corbyn of “very muddled and dangerous thinking” that implied blame on Britain for somehow bringing the Manchester terror attack on itself.

Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, intensified the attack, saying Corbyn’s comments were “absolutely monstrous”. Speaking alongside the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, he said it was “absolutely extraordinary and inexplicable in this week of all weeks that there should be any attempt to justify or to legitimate the actions of terrorists in this way.”

Meanwhile, saying "education didn't stop Manchester," Andrew Neil savages "sentimental' counter-terrorism."  Here’s an excerpt from this fascinating article (note U.K. spelling):

In a heated exchange, Neil laid into Hazel Blears during the BBC's Daily Politics show, who used to help lead the counter-terror strategy under Labour, after she announced education could eliminate terror attacks.

Prevent strategy, the Government's long-running de-radicalisation programme, is set to be expanded in the wake of the Manchester attack.

But, Neil told Mrs Blears the community and education-based approach failed to stop the Manchester bomber, who killed 22 innocent victims, including children.

In another related story, the U.K. government promised to crack down on encrypted apps after the bombing. Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to push (after the upcoming election) to be able to order messages to be decrypted if they suspected a service was being used to conduct criminal activity.

Global Anti-Terrorism Lessons Learned

Experts in Washington, D.C., called this attack a wake call for America and Europe. Here’s an excerpt from TheHill.com:

The horrific attack in Manchester which has now been claimed by ISIS is just the tip of the iceberg. Speculations that it was a lone-wolf attack are wishful at best and harmful in the long run. They feed a narrative that attacks like these in Europe and the United States are disconnected from the groups that enable and direct them abroad. More often than not, those so-called “lone wolves” rely on a pack of supporters and an operational network. ISIS’s networks in Europe already run deep.

But will there be lessons learned? Previous terrorist attacks pointed to new uses for social media and the use of encrypted applications. Will the use of technology change? Should it change?

One security area that is being addressed includes new assumptions about protecting large stadiums and arenas holding sporting events and concerts:

The suicide bomber in Manchester appears to have adopted the latest technique in the terrorist playbook, [John Reese, whose company promotes concerts and local festivals in Europe,] and others said. Instead of trying to penetrate the secure perimeter of a building or event, he appears to have struck just at that edge, detonating his improvised explosive device just as thousands of fans, many of them quite young, started streaming out of the building at the end of the show.

“Our system is currently built around the idea that it’s from the perimeter of the building in,” said Chris Robinette, chief executive officer of Prevent Advisors, a Los Angeles-based firm that specializes in stadium and arena security. “We need to think about looking out and exterior. More parking lot, more foyer, more patio area. We need to start reallocating and addressing those areas of security.

Another area that must be considered anew is online trust and public communications. The myriad of true and false message, Tweets, Facebook posts, leaks, media opinions (versus facts), and fake news make it very difficult to determine what information is trustworthy.

U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly was scheduled to be on many Sunday TV talk shows to discuss terrorism and safety worldwide after the Manchester attack. Last week, Secretary Kelly said, “If you knew what I knew about terror, you would never leave your house."

Final Thoughts

As I have shared in past blogs, I lived for almost seven years in Northern England in the 1990s. My family often visited Manchester, England, for a variety of reasons. Seeing the young children victims of this horrendous act forced me to reflect (again) on the reality of how close these events really are. If circumstances had been different, my daughter might have been among those at that concert.  

We must remember that besides the 138 people who were physically wounded, many thousands were emotionally affected by these events, and millions of people around the world are watching, following events and waiting to see what happens next. We are all interconnected in an untold number of ways.

The very sad events of the past week once again highlight the online and offline dangers before during and after major terrorist incidents. From cybersecurity to technology infrastructure to physical security (such as cameras and police and other law enforcement at events), our public- and private-sector missions to stop these atrocities marches on, and we must learn from what happened.

I urge you to read some of these touching quotes, such as, “The spirit of the people of Manchester will grow even stronger this evening.”

Finally, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said, “But we can continue to resolve to thwart such attacks in future, to take on and defeat the ideology that often fuels this violence. And if there turn out to be others responsible, to seek them out and bring them to justice.”