Yesterday’s terrorist attack that struck at the end of an Ariana Grande concert in Britain’s Manchester Arena—leaving 22 people dead and 59 injured, by the latest count—feels perhaps even more callous and personal than other such recent atrocities. As The New York Times noted, the target was “a concert spilling over with girls in their teens or younger, with their lives ahead of them, out for a fun night.”
For Europe, the attack, now claimed by ISIS, represents a continuation of a nightmare scenario: The pace and deadliness of terrorist attacks in the continent has reached levels unprecedented in the post-9/11 era, with the heinous and grotesque becoming frighteningly routine.
Even five years ago, specialists could count the major post-9/11 attacks in Western countries on one hand, and knew every date on which they had been perpetrated. They were known by names like 3/11 or 7/7 (references to attacks in Madrid and London, respectively).
Over the past three years, though, there has been an explosion in the frequency of terrorist attacks against Western countries, and in the lethality of these events. From a brutal urban-warfare-style assault on Paris in November 2015 (130 dead) to the March 2016 bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station (32 dead), to a cargo truck plowing through crowds celebrating Bastille Day on a promenade in Nice (86 dead), to a truck striking a Christmas market in Berlin (12 dead), and now to an Ariana Grande concert, the message is that no place—no matter how familiar, beloved, or associated with the young and innocent—is truly safe. And there are so many other, recent examples. A priest whose throat was slit in the middle of a service in Normandy. An attacker in Magnanville who killed a couple, then turned on Facebook Live while menacing their 3-year-old child. A suicide bomber who struck outside a concert in Ansbach, Germany, wounding 15.
The very events that would end up propelling the current spike in terrorist attacks were widely misread about six years ago as the solution to jihadism. When CNN’s Fareed Zakaria claimed in March 2011 that the revolutions that had swept across the Arab world at the beginning of that year represented “a total repudiation of al-Qaeda’s founding ideology,” he was articulating a near-consensus view. Peaceful revolutions brushing aside authoritarian governments and ushering in newly democratic regimes were supposed to show that the violence of jihadist movements was unnecessary. These views were shared not only by pundits, but by U.S. government analysts. In his memoir The Great War of Our Time, former CIA deputy director Michael Morell regretfully explained that his agency “thought and told policy-makers that this outburst of popular revolt would damage [al-Qaeda] by undermining the group’s narrative.”