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Tom Clonan: 'There was a level of support and pre-meditation to this sinister attack'

In Manchester, in attacking an Ariana Grande concert, the deliberately chosen target was children, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

LAST NIGHT’S ATTACK at the Manchester Arena on first appearance appeared to have been carried out by a single suicide bomber.

The Greater Manchester Police said from early this morning that they believed the device was detonated in the crowded foyer of the venue by a man on his own.

In this context and in the immediate aftermath of the Westminster Bridge and Stockholm attacks of March and April, one might have immediately suspected the Manchester incident to be the work of a so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacker.

However, throughout the day – and with a number of raids and arrests carried out – more sinister features have emerged from the Manchester Arena attack, suggesting it might have been the work of a network – or a disaffected individual supported in some way by a terror cell.

Manchester Arena incident A police forensic investigator at an address in Elsmore Road Source: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

In the case of the Stockholm, Westminster Bridge, Berlin Christmas Market and Nice attacks, the perpetrators carried out highly impromptu and opportunistic attacks using vehicles such as SUVs and trucks.

The profile of the attackers suggested disaffected, perhaps radicalised individuals who acted alone – with varying degrees of lethality.

Whilst the Nice attacker managed to murder 86 men, women and children, the subsequent vehicle attacks in Berlin, Stockholm and London were to all intents and purposes botched attempts at mass casualty incidents.

Responding perhaps to calls by Isis to kill westerners ‘with cars’ – though more likely triggered by personal events in their own lives – these attacks showed poor levels of planning and execution.

The Manchester bombing however appears to fit an entirely different profile of attack.

Posted by on Friday, 15 December 2017

To begin with, eyewitness accounts describe a loud bang in the foyer accompanied by a powerful shock wave.

People in the Arena have described feeling a pressure wave ‘in their chests’ at the time of the blast.

Witnesses in the foyer where the device was detonated have described a scene of carnage – glass flying, body parts scattered across the floor, nuts and bolts in evidence perhaps as shrapnel surrounding the device.

Tellingly, despite the blast there was no major structural damage to the foyer itself –as would be the case if the device was a conventional plastic explosives improvised explosive device (IED).

In addition, if plastic explosives had been used, there would also have been a very significant heat signature with temperatures of up to 2,000 degrees in the immediate vicinity of the explosion. Thus far there have been no eyewitness reports of catastrophic burn injuries or indeed fire at the location of the attack.

It is not likely that the IED used in this attack was nitrogen based – such as a fertiliser based explosive – as this would have required a very bulky device, normally associated with truck bombs or car bombs. It is unlikely an individual could have concealed such a device on their person in a location such as the Manchester Arena.

Given the eyewitness accounts and police statements, it is most likely that the device used in last night’s attack was a TATP bomb.

Tri Acetone Tri Peroxide bombs or IEDs were of the type used by Islamic State in the Paris attacks of November 2015. In those attacks, eight of the attackers wore TATP suicide vests – seven of which were detonated. Whilst the ingredients for TATP devices are commonly available in pharmacies and DIY stores, the mixing of the ingredients is extremely hazardous. Many TATP bomb-makers kill themselves at this preparation stage.

In addition, the crystalline substance which forms the bulk charge of TATP devices is highly unstable and will detonate readily with very modest heat, vibration or friction.

It therefore takes considerable skill and – usually training – to successfully formulate and transport such a viable device as a suicide vest or rucksack bomb. In my view, given the information that is emerging about last night’s attack, the Manchester bomber most likely had some support in mounting this attack.

The detonation signature of a TATP device – air blast generating a catastrophic shock wave of around 5,300 metres per second is capable of causing limb separation and decapitation in close proximity.

This is consistent with eyewitness accounts of body parts at the scene of the explosion.  Such devices are normally further weaponised with the addition of shrapnel to increase lethality. Eyewitnesses report nuts and bolts at the scene – with one victim having had a ‘bolt’ sever an artery in her knee, requiring emergency surgery to save her life.

In the Paris attacks, large crowds at the Stade de France were targeted by the Isis cell.  However, the bomber, using a TATP IED was intercepted as he tried to enter the venue by security guard Salim Toorabally.

The simple security screening measures employed at the Stade de France ensured that the bomber was diverted away from the main crowd. The attacker was forced to detonate the device outside the venue and, in essence, the attack was a failure.

The Manchester bomber appears to have learned from this experience and did not attempt to gain access to the venue by the entrance where normal, if primitive, security measures prevail.

Instead, he targeted the crowd as it exited the venue in an area where they were funnelled and concentrated. This aspect of the attack suggests a level of pre-meditation, surveillance and planning that would be consistent with a cell structure – or a network of individuals.

There is also the sinister nature of the target.

In the Paris attacks, the Bataclan Theatre was selected as an attack on the freedoms and liberties of French citizens in their 20s and 30s.

In Manchester, in attacking an Ariana Grande concert, the deliberately chosen target was children.

The demographic profile of fans attending her concerts would normally consist of children – mostly girls – between the ages of 10 and 14. In this regard, last night’s attack will go down in infamy as a particularly barbaric and bestial act.

Manchester Arena incident

Manchester is only 150 miles from Dublin – approximately the same distance as Cork.

The Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police stated in the immediate aftermath that they had practised continuously for such an attack in boots on the ground exercises involving police, medical personnel and fire services.

This goes some way towards explaining the remarkably rapid reaction of Manchester’s first responders – with seriously injured children and adults triaged, treated and saved at the site of the blast.

Manchester Arena incident Armed police close to the scene this morning. Source: Danny Lawson

As the US and Russia and their various allies close in on the remnants of Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ in Raqqa and Mosul, Isis have promised a wave of renewed terror attacks in Europe to be carried out by foreign fighters returning to their homelands – along with ‘lone wolf’ attacks.

In this context, the Irish government cannot ignore recent terror attacks in Europe and must take the necessary steps to protect Irish citizens from such attacks and their immediate aftermath.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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