Terror and Geopolitics: Manchester 2017 and 1996

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Manchester, UK, was hit with the deadliest bomb attack on Monday since a June Saturday morning in 1996, when a massive 3000 lb. Provisional Irish Republican Army blast leveled the city center shopping district to rubble and left 200 wounded. The toll at the Ariana Grande concert so far this morning is nearly two dozen dead and over 60 wounded.

My heart goes out to the innocent victims, young people celebrating spring and life with some lighthearted entertainment. I apologize that the rest of this column will turn to dry analysis. Trying to understand global contemporary history is my own way of dealing with its tragedy.

It should be underlined that local Manchester Muslims were as devastated as everyone else by this attack, and that Muslim cabbies swung into action helping the concert-goers with free rides out of the affected area. Islamic law forbids terrorism.

Ironically, the attack yesterday in Manchester was likely by Sunni radicals (ISIL has claimed it), and came two days after President Trump blamed all terrorism on Shiite Iran at a speech in Saudi Arabia, the proponent of a form of extreme Sunni supremacism. Saudi Arabia’s royal family say they oppose terrorism and they are not responsible for terrorism, but they do give Wahhabis the impression that non-Wahhabis are wretched heretics with whom one cannot be friends.

Can anything be learned from looking at 1996 and 2017 in the same historical frame? Paul Sanders wrote in the London Times in 1996,

“We heard the sirens through the office window and I ran into the street to be met by hordes of shoppers running from the city centre . . . I had no idea what was going on but I headed forwhere they were running from. . . A policeman shouted at me: “Get down!” and thatwas when the bomb went off. It seemed to happen in slow motion. The airwas sucked out ofmy lungs and I was blown off my feet. Glass and bits of slate were falling around me and I was frightened of getting knocked unconscious or worse. I somehow got to thewall of a pub for shelter. As I looked along the street, I saw the cloud of dust and smoke. I took several frames.


Manchester 1996 h/t Manchester Evening News

Local officials spoke of the event as “a chilling reminder of the IRA’s capacity for evil,” [quoted in Barry Hazley, “Re/Negotiating ‘Suspicion’: Exploring the Construction of the Self in Irish Migrants’ Memories of the 1996 Manchester Bomb,” Irish Studies Review Vol. 21, Issue 3. Date: 2013 Pages: 326-341). Some suspicion fell on Manchester’s large Irish expatriate community. There was a search for persons with Irish accents. The Irish community center received threatening phone calls with that “you murdering Irish bastards” are going to get it tonight!”

As Hazley’s oral history showed, most working-class Irish in Manchester had no sympathy with the bombing, and regretted the tension it introduced into their relations with English friends.

Let me underline, since these matters are still controversial and can make for hard feelings that a) terrorism, i.e. hitting innocent civilians, is always wrong and b) the Irish nationalist cause has many legitimate grievances stemming from the long history of brutal colonialism.

The Provisional Irish Republican Army, founded in 1969, sought to unite the Republic of Ireland with British Northern Ireland in a single state. In the IRA frame, Northern Ireland was a colonial holdover militarily occupied by the United Kingdom and could be liberated by guerrilla war on Britain. Ireland itself had been a British colony for centuries and was only liberated by hard anti-colonial struggle at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the time of the 1996 bombing in Manchester, negotiations were going on between the UK and Ireland to find some sort of power-sharing solution for Northern Ireland. Those negotiations succeeded in 1998, and by 1997 the IRA had declared a cease-fire. The Manchester bombing was one of the last big such attacks. Perhaps because it occurred in the midst of a serious diplomatic process, British officialdom responded in a relatively subdued manner.

The 1998 “Good Friday” agreement that largely ended the Northern Ireland “troubles” that roiled the 1970s and after and left thousands dead and wounded acknowledged Ireland’s legitimate interests in Northern Ireland but left that province part of the United Kingdom until such time as a majority of its inhabitants wished to secede (a right they were granted). It also recognized the right of pro-Ireland inhabitants of Northern Ireland to advocate for union with Ireland without that being seen as treason.

How does the 1996 P-IRA bombing compare to that of 2017? Both hit a civilian target (Arndale Shopping Center among others in the first instance, a pop music concert in the second). If it is true that yesterday’s incident was an attack by a suicide bomber, it very possibly was the work of ISIL (ISIS, Daesh), the radical Muslim organization that seeks to detach Sunni Iraq and Sunni Syria from their respective countries and create a state for Sunni Arabs, who are currently ruled by what the Sunni nationalists see as Shiite-dominated states. Britain was the colonial power that formed modern Iraq and is currently part of a US-led military coalition bombing ISIL facilities in an attempt to defeat the organization.

Beyond ISIL, Western Europe had colonized most of the Muslim world for centuries, in a concerted quest to steal its resources, tax its people, and put its inhabitants to work on colonial plantations. After WW II, most Muslim-majority states with the exception of the Mandate of Palestine became independent countries, but even then they often continued to be economically colonized and politically subordinate to the old colonial master. The US war of aggression on and brutal military occupation of Iraq 2003-2011 set off this sort of anti-colonial struggle once again.

ISIL of course differs profoundly from the IRA, but both were reactions against a history of colonial shaping of the lives of local people in ways that were seen by the colonized to harm their dignity and to detract from local sovereignty. Both lashed out with terrorism (the IRA once hit Harrod’s Department Store in London, leaving people dead).

One big difference is that the IRA had a clear idea of what it wanted, which was the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland (something a majority of people in Northern Ireland, i.e. Protestants, however, did not want). The IRA subordinated religion to nation, coding everyone in the Irish isles as Irish and ideally part of the same polity.

In contrast, ISIL exalts sectarian identity over nation, seeing the Sunni Arabs of Iraq as oppressed by being in the same country with a majority Shiite population. ISIL is a form of hyper Sunni nationalism (though to be fair it codes many mainstream Sunnis as heretics or colonial collaborators).

Both the IRA and ISIL are unrealistic. The IRA got only a little of what it wanted, but apparently that was enough to convince its members to stand down (there is a tiny rump of “Real IRA” activists who reject the Good Friday agreement). ISIL in contrast will get nothing and will simply be militarily defeated.

To the extent, though, that ISIL is a (distorted and monstrous) form of Sunni Arab nationalism, or benefited from those sentiments, it will be a mistake for Iraq/ US and Syria/Russia to simply crush the Sunnis. Sunni Arabs in both countries have legitimate aspirations to having more say in their governance. Along with the military defeat of ISIL, which may be accomplished by the end of the year, a George Mitchell-style political settlement is desirable. In Iraq, some of the problem could be resolved by the country becoming more democratic, making its parliamentary system more inclusive and less of a tyranny of the majority. Unfortunately, we are in the age of Trump, an age of the exaltation of the strong man (i.e. dictator) and diplomatic solutions are seen as mere weakness.

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Related video:

Manchester Explosion: “Kids and teenagers just lying there screaming “- BBC News

17 Responses

  1. “Trying to understand global contemporary history is my own way of dealing with its tragedy.” Good. It’s a must way to approximate the answer and achieve peace. Unfortunately the MSM does not go for analysis, it only goes for circus and war.

  2. One significant difference between the IRA and ISIS is that although the IRA used larger bombs, they sent warnings shortly before the explosions in order to minimize casualties. ISIS uses suicide bombers in crowded areas to kill as many people as possible.

  3. Britain “is currently part of a US-led military coalition bombing ISIL facilities in an attempt to defeat the organization.”

    An abiding principle of our defense strategy is that the enemy will never be afforded sanctuary. During the Vietnam War the Vietcong sanctuaries in Laos and Cambodia were severely dealt with by US air power. The war against the Taliban included many drone strikes in Pakistan, The war against al Qaeda started with a war against its host country, Afghanistan, and eventually bombing Somalia, Libya, and Yemen. Our enemies can run but never hide.

    But we can’t imagine our homeland, or Britain’s, or France’s to be seen by our enemies as sanctuary, and thus legitimate targets. The big difference is that the West has massive military forces that can bomb and destroy virtually any target on earth without losing a drop of Western blood. ISIS resources limits it to doing Manchesters. As horrific as these incidents are, they are part and parcel of asymmetric warfare.

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful and sober analysis of the terrorist atrocity in Manchester, which as usual explores the bigger picture and puts the gruesome event in context. I lost my cousin’s daughter in the bombings in London on July 7, 2005, and I can feel the pain of the families of young people who were massacred. There were 12 children aged between 8-16 among the victims. The reaction of government officials and the people has been exemplary.

    I do not wish to add to Saudi Arabia’s problems, as I believe that if the current regime falls the alternative may well be worse in the short term. However, this terrorist activity that has been claimed by ISIS, reinforces what you wrote about Trump’s praise of an absolute monarchy that spreads anti-Western and anti-Shi’ite hatred around the world.

    Praising Saudi Arabia as a bastion of moderation and anti-extremism is totally bizarre. It is like praising an arsonist as a fireman. I don’t know what message his speech sent to the region and to the Islamic world. That clumsy speech demeaned America and betrayed the cause of freedom and democracy in the world for the sake of a few pieces of silver. If we wish to see the end of Salafi fanaticism and an Islamic Reformation, we should get serious and must encourage moderation and some measure of democracy and human rights in the countries that propagate that distorted version of Islam.

    • I was under the impression any group with a chance of replacing the Saudi Regime would be an improvement. Give Saudi Arabia an Arab Spring, no? Please improve my understanding of why that would be bad. I assumed most Saudi dissidents yearn in a progressive liberal direction, relatively. feminists…democracy activists… is this wishful thinking?

  5. This is a good and succinct analysis. Once again, American-led and instigated actions have resulted in blowback among Europeans who went along with Uncle Sam, being dragged into this morass. Something to consider historically is how differently the UK reacted to Irish terrorism — no matter the provocation, the UK did NOT send troops into the Republic of Ireland or bomb Dublin. IRA terrorism was treated as criminality, not an excuse to make war against an entire people or nation. That’s a lesson the US would have done well to heed after 2001, but of course American policy since that time has been about a lot more than simply “fighting the bad guys” (terrorists). Unfortunately, American desires for global hegemony are creating more terrorists every year.

  6. All the analysis applied here cannot approximate the brilliant observation of Theresa May, that an expression of “callous cowardice” is the true villain.

  7. There’s little doubt in my mind that the deranged attacker saw, was literally impacted by the routine goings-on outside the Manchester Arena as though it was the Roman Coliseum during a never-ending Saturnalia. For the mentally deranged and culturally displaced perpetrator the imminent victims were not children, young women, girls, but a shameless and shocking sight to his fully fundamentalized mind’s eye. He killed them because he was sick and in his sickness saw odious and irredeemable societal sickness everywhere. They were the incarnation of a satanic offense, of a hideous defiance to the puristic logic he had so thoroughly and unreservedly internalized–their very sight poison to his mind, a pedestrian and routinized pornography that he could never tire or accustom himself to. In his derangement he became possessed of an idea and that idea was the culmination and the termination of an otherwise insoluble despair, in killing 22 innocents this terrorist sought to escape the confines of the hellish labyrinth within which he found himself mercilessly encased.

  8. There is still much to be learned, but the recent disclosure that the perpetrator was a British born young man of Libyan heritage evidently introverted, and possibly close to mental illness from accounts, adds new dimensions to any analysis. Alienation seems to be a factor brought about by being colonised in the host society, instead of being able to shape and influence its development. Perhaps we should be looking at what is happening within host societies as much as without and the interaction between internal and external colonisation processes to come up with ideas about how to forestall these terrible events.

  9. And where is the intelligence we are trading Yemenis kids for. Manchester 2017 happens every day in Yemen by British bombs and blessing so this wouldn’t happen in UK.

    • Any terrorist act by any human brute must be strongly condemned by one and all

      It is an immoral retaliation for what have been happening may be in the Middle East

      We do not know yet the real perpetrators at Manchester but it may be a retaliation whereby poor and innocent people have been targeted

      The punished group of innocent people had no direct association with the geopolitical developments

      It is true that in times of war and armed conflict, collective punishment has resulted in atrocities, and violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.(It is happening right now in Syria by all fighters)

      Historically, occupying powers have used collective punishment to retaliate against and deter attacks on their forces by Resistance movements (e.g. destroying entire towns and villages where such attacks have occurred).

      But two wrongs do not make a wrong ( a terrorist act) right

  10. The threat of Muslim radicals and extremists to the Western nations is rooted in “how easy it is for rebellious Muslims to see, hear, experience, and hate the some of the Western policies

    In general western countries support for Israel that keeps Palestinians under the crushing boots of Israel

    The occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan is as unacceptable as Vietnam was in 1970s

    U.S. support for apostate( defactors from genuine Islamic spirit), corrupt, and tyrannical Muslim governments that pretend to serve Muslims but enhance their personal wealth make Muslims in the streets unhappy

    Iraq War has affected some of the terrorists groups such as Al-Qaeda and it has affected the Western nations too

    The instability in the Iraq War has benefited Al-Qaeda and similar groups without serving the interests of Western nations .

    The terror threat to the western world continues to grow due to the stupidity of some lone wolf Muslim name bearing terrorists and simultaneously these terrorist acts do a lot of harm to the peaceful lives of Muslim minorities living in the West but at the same time the Western nations fail to grasp the nature of the struggle in which they are engaged:

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