In Bri­tain, ter­ror­ism at cen­ter stage

Manch­ester bomb­ing thrusts se­cu­rity to fore as June elec­tions ap­proach

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KARLA ADAM AND MICHAEL BIRN­BAUM karla.adam@wash­post.com

lon­don — The Manch­ester bomb­ing has thrust ter­ror­ism to cen­ter stage ahead of Bri­tain’s hotly con­tested June elec­tions, as Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May on Satur­day warned that “the coun­try should re­main vig­i­lant” even as au­thor­i­ties say con­cerns about a new at­tack have eased.

May low­ered Bri­tain’s se­cu­rity threat back where it was be­fore the Mon­day sui­cide bomb­ing at a pop con­cert killed 22 peo­ple. But even though au­thor­i­ties ap­peared sat­is­fied that they had cap­tured most of the peo­ple they sus­pect to have taken part in the at­tack, se­cu­rity fears con­tin­ued to re­ver­ber­ate through the po­lit­i­cal cam­paign ahead of the June 8 elec­tion.

“A sig­nif­i­cant amount of po­lice ac­tiv­ity has taken place in the last 24 hours,” May said Satur­day af­ter a meet­ing of her top se­cu­rity ad­vis­ers.

Po­lice, mean­while, ar­rested two ad­di­tional sus­pects early Satur­day in Manch­ester, bring­ing the num­ber of peo­ple in cus­tody to 11.

“We are get­ting a greater un­der­stand­ing of the prepa­ra­tion of the bomb,” said Mark Row­ley, the top coun­tert­er­ror­ism of­fi­cial at Bri­tain’s Metropoli­tan Po­lice.

The an­nounce­ment came a day af­ter May and her Labour op­po­nent traded vi­cious barbs about the role Bri­tish in­volve­ment in Mid­dle East­ern con­flicts has played in ter­ror­ist at­tacks. Be­fore Mon­day’s bomb­ing, the elec­tion had ap­peared firmly in the grasp of May’s Con­ser­va­tives.

May called the elec­tion seek­ing the pub­lic’s stamp of ap­proval for the gov­ern­ment’s strat­egy to ne­go­ti­ate Bri­tain’s break from the Euro­pean Union. That was sud­denly on the side­lines.

“The war on ter­ror is not work­ing,” Labour leader Jeremy Cor­byn said Fri­day, as cam­paign­ing re­sumed af­ter a three-day break fol­low­ing the at­tack. Or­ga­niz­ers pre­ceded Cor­byn’s speech with a minute’s si­lence to honor the 22 peo­ple who died in the bomb blast.

In the ad­dress, Cor­byn linked Bri­tain’s for­eign wars to ter­ror­ist at­tacks but stressed the con­nec­tion “in no way re­duces the guilt of those who at­tack our chil­dren.”

“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.

Cor­byn, a long­time critic of the Bri­tain’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, also pledged that if he were prime min­is­ter, troops would only be de­ployed abroad if there was a clear need, proper re­sources and a plan for “last­ing peace.”

His op­po­nents wasted no time in ac­cus­ing him of try­ing to politi­cize the at­tack.

“I have been here at the G-7 work­ing with other in­ter­na­tional lead­ers to fight ter­ror­ism,” May said Fri­day af­ter a sum­mit meet­ing with top Euro­pean lead­ers and Pres­i­dent Trump. “At the same time, Jeremy Cor­byn has said that ter­ror­ist at­tacks are our own fault.

“There can be no ex­cuse for ter­ror­ism,” she said.

Boris John­son, Bri­tain’s for­eign sec­re­tary, said that Cor­byn’s po­si­tion was “ab­so­lutely mon­strous.”

Lib­eral Demo­crat leader Tim Far­ron said that Cor­byn was try­ing to score a “po­lit­i­cal point” and that he dis­agreed with his timing.

Cor­byn re­sponded to the crit­i­cisms in a late-night BBC in­ter­view, say­ing that he wasn’t de­fend­ing the “in­de­fen­si­ble” Manch­ester at­tack but was re­flect­ing the view that coun­tries that want a se­cure fu­ture need to re­flect on for­eign pol­icy.

“Any sen­si­ble gov­ern­ment has to look at what is hap­pen­ing in Libya, a huge un­governed space and ap­par­ently a source of some aw­ful ex­trem­ism,” he said. The 22-year-old at­tacker, Sal­man Abedi, was born in Manch­ester to Libyan par­ents and had trav­eled to Libya ahead of the bomb­ing.

Still, some of the dam­age had al­ready been done, with Bri­tain’s pow­er­ful right-wing tabloids rip­ping into the Labour leader.

“This is a man who, for years, has been one of West­min­ster’s fore­most apol­o­gists for ter­ror­ism,” wrote Guy Adams, a colum­nist in the Daily Mail.

Although the Con­ser­va­tives lashed out at Cor­byn’s re­marks, they could also gal­va­nize his base.

Cor­byn’s speech “will out­rage many Con­ser­va­tives, but if his aim is to mo­bi­lize his core left lib­eral vote, then it could work,” said Tim Bale, a pol­i­tics pro­fes­sor at Queen Mary Uni­ver­sity of Lon­don. “Now, how that will play with the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers is an­other mat­ter.”

Re­cent polls have shown the Con­ser­va­tives’ lead sig­nif­i­cantly nar­row­ing.

When May called the snap elec­tion last month, her op­po­nents were weak and frac­tious. One poll­ster gave her Con­ser­va­tive Party a tow­er­ing 23-point lead. But a new YouGov poll on Fri­day showed the Con­ser­va­tive Party’s lead has slipped to five points — a dra­matic shift that would put Labour on track to gain seats, some­thing few po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tors ex­pected weeks ago.

Many at­tribute the shift to Labour’s suc­cess­ful man­i­festo launch and a con­tro­versy in the Con­ser­va­tive Party over its plans — since aban­doned — to cut so­cial ben­e­fits for the el­derly.

It’s pos­si­ble, an­a­lysts say, that the Con­ser­va­tives could inch back up in the polls fol­low­ing the ter­ror­ist at­tack as the nar­ra­tive shifts away from their re­cent dif­fi­cul­ties to fo­cus on May’s lead­er­ship and se­cu­rity is­sues.

Be­fore be­com­ing prime min­is­ter, May served for six years as Bri­tain’s home sec­re­tary, the coun­try’s top do­mes­tic se­cu­rity of­fi­cial. She is also seen as the leader most likely to keep Bri­tain safe from ter­ror­ist threats.

“May’s re­cent dif­fi­cul­ties will now be over­taken by events,” wrote Mu­jtaba Rah­man, an an­a­lyst with the Eura­sia Group, in a brief­ing note. He said that the elec­tion cam­paign will shift to a “stronger fo­cus on lead­er­ship, where Labour is at a strong dis­ad­van­tage with Jeremy Cor­byn in charge.”

Bale agreed that con­ven­tional wis­dom sug­gests May could ben­e­fit but also warned that it could back­fire if it is proved that there were fail­ings in the se­cu­rity ser­vices.

“Nor­mally, there is a de­gree of ral­ly­ing around an in­cum­bent or pres­i­dent or prime min­is­ter in this sit­u­a­tion. But there are down­side risks, as well, if in­ves­ti­ga­tion proves the se­cu­rity sys­tem could have spot­ted this man ear­lier and can pin that on lack of re­sources,” said Bale.

But what­ever way the pen­du­lum swings, he said, “it’s dif­fi­cult to be­lieve the elec­tion cam­paign will be the same as it might have been be­fore the bomb went off.”

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