The ignition of a small incendiary device in the gentlemen’s toilet in a major shopping centre that injured no one might usually pass below the radar horizon of the national press. In today’s febrile environment however such a news story rapidly gains traction and quickly becomes the subject of a great deal of often ill-informed speculation on social media.
The device itself was clearly somewhat simplistic in its construction. It has been reported to have been made of an inhaler and some toilet paper. The time it was placed and the appearance of the man the police and searching for and have subsequently made an arrest hardly point to an attempt to conduct mass murder. The device apparently ignited but in no way exploded. Either this was a highly botched or simplistic attack by a person of while Caucasian ethnicity allied to so-called Islamic State or it had some other motive.
The police made it clear in their statements that the reason for placing the device and its subsequent activation are not clear. While saying it could have caused harm and was placed with the intent of harming people this may well prove to be hyperbole. The real reasons why the device was placed where it was might prove to be somewhat more readily explained.
Imagine if a single individual allied to the Extreme Right Wing in the United Kingdom decided that he was going to place a device in a shopping centre specifically to create the kind of social media stereotypes that he knew would follow. But why do that we an attack on a religious centre would make more of a statement? Perhaps the aim was to obfuscate, making the analysis of the motive much more difficult to understand.
Increased anxiety and false alarms
What if the perpetrator was actually a member of an animal rights group anxious to draw attention to their cause in the run up to Christmas? The modus operandi of the attack certainly has elements that make either of these two accounts plausible.
The possibility such an attack might have been carried out by Dissident Republicans seems unlikely. Why attack Preston? The city centres of Manchester or Liverpool are much more impactive targets as would be a return to Warrington, stirring deep memories of past atrocities. No matter what the truth actually is the events in Preston have provided a glimpse or premonition of what we might expect next year.
This event highlights the current difficulties facing the emergency services in the United Kingdom in the post-Paris period of increased anxiety with its accompanying potential for false alarms and the corrosive impact that can have on community relations which are already strained.
Some in the wider security services have gone so far as to suggest that Pandora’s Box has been opened by events in Paris with so-called Islamic State now showing an ability to conduct attacks of a similar nature to those traditionally associated with Al Qaeda. In a recent piece of analysis FIRE pointed to ‘terrorism being at a crossroads’ before the Paris attack was carried out.
Direction of travel in 2016
With hindsight this appears to have been quite prescient. The direction of travel for terrorism in Western Europe now appears to be clear. We can expect more events that mirror what happened in Paris either carried out by so-called Islamic State or by Al Qaeda. In a year when France has suffered a range of attacks of varying magnitude and casualty count with the Al Qaeda inspired attack on Charlie Hebdo being followed by the dreadful attacks in Paris on 13 November.
This backdrop explains why the reaction in the media to events in Preston has been so marked. Every major newspaper and broadcaster has speculated that this is some kind of terrorist attack. In reality the truth may be more prosaic. But at a time when Muslim and non-Muslim communities are feeling the strain of the tensions that quite understandably arise in the wake of what happened in Paris the kind of ill-informed speculation that runs riot on social media is at best unhelpful. It just follows a pre-determined stereotype rather than being based on good analysis of facts.
In such a situation it falls on the police to be clear and unequivocal in their relationship with the press. They have rightly played the initial incident as a ‘criminal event’ and have not stoked what could easily become an incendiary situation with statements that can be misinterpreted. Clarity of messaging is important which is why the initial reports on the somewhat improvised nature of the device are important. This was not the kind of sophisticated explosive device that has become synonymous with so-called Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
No matter what the final answer is to the specifics of this attack in the coming weeks the emergency services are likely to face even greater challenges. In the last few days an event at Leytonstone in London showed how easy it is for a single lone wolf to create uncertainty at an Underground station in London.
The day before the incident in Preston a suspect device was located in a small town to the south west of Newcastle on an estate. More such potential false alarms will no doubt follow. Moreover reports emerging that one of the key players in the attacks on Paris visited the United Kingdom in the run up to the attacks and spent time making contacts in Kent, London and Birmingham hardly calms the situation.
For the emergency services the New Year hardly looks like one that is going to be any easier than before. In its worst form the kind of terrorism that might be manifested by either of the two groups vying for leadership of the international Islamic extremist movement could test our national resilience to its core. As we enter another year where the threat from terrorism has not in any way receded that is not a nice thought to contemplate.