Manchester attack highlights differences and similarities between threat landscapes in Europe and the U.S.

  • May 26, 2017
Scene outside the Manchester Arena following the terrorist attack on May 22, 2017

Photo credit: Press Association

The horrific attack at the Manchester Arena on Monday, May 22, which claimed the lives of 22 people, is a stark reminder of the ongoing global terrorist threat. As evidenced by attacks in Paris, Brussels and Manchester, anti-terror efforts in Europe face considerable challenges.

While American terrorism analysts will undoubtedly learn valuable lessons from the ongoing Manchester investigation, it is important to note that the threat landscapes in Europe and the United States are quite different. 

Key Differences:

  • Terrorist networks: The number of terrorists involved in the Manchester attack is still not known, but it is apparent that Salman Abedi, the 23-year-old British citizen who executed the attack, did not work alone. UK police have already arrested a number of individuals with possible connections to the attack, and have indicated a larger terrorist network may be behind the attack. A wider terrorist network means a higher level of threat, as there are more possible attackers supported by a capable logistical network. The most glaring example of this is the wide network of terrorists responsible for the Paris attack in November 2015 and the Brussels attack in March 2016, which together resulted in more than 160 deaths.  By contrast, most of the recent attacks in the U.S. were not the result of a terrorist network preparing and planning for an attack, but rather of radicalized individuals acting alone. This was the case for all six 2016 attacks in the U.S. that were motivated by Islamic extremist ideology, as noted in ADL’s Domestic Islamic Extremism in 2016 report.

  • Foreign travel: Abedi’s recent travels to Libya, and possibly Syria, increases the likelihood that he had some direct connection to a terrorist organization, and may even have received training. Cases of terrorists traveling to conflict zones for training and then returning to their home countries to conduct attacks are more common in Europe than in the U.S. For example, Mohamed Merah, who in 2012 shot and killed three Jewish children, their teacher, and three French soldiers in three separate attacks in France, had spent some time in an Al-Qaeda training camp abroad before coming back to France. In the U.S., the situation is very different, and the majority of plots and attacks in recent years did not involve individuals who traveled abroad for training. There are a few exceptions, including Mohamed Rafik Naji, of Brooklyn, NY, who was arrested in November 2016 on charges of attempting to provide material support to ISIS after traveling to Yemen. However, it remains unclear whether he received any real training there. In fact, most individuals who attempt to travel from the U.S. to train with terror groups overseas in recent years were stopped by law enforcement officials, either while departing or returning. Terror groups have recognized the difficulty faced by aspiring terrorists who wish to travel abroad, and have instead urged them to stay in the U.S. and carry out domestic attacks. 

  • A directed attack: Available facts about Manchester indicate that this was a directed attack -- one in which the perpetrators were trained, guided and supported by a terrorist organization. Directed attacks are often more elaborate and deadly than those perpetrated by individuals without such training and guidance. By contrast, there have not been any successful directed attacks in the U.S. in recent years. Attackers in the U.S. have been inspired by foreign terror propaganda, and may have received general guidance through online platforms, but all six of the attacks that occurred in the U.S. in 2016 were committed without any direct contact with terror organizations abroad.

There are also a number of parallels between what happened in Manchester and recent attacks in the U.S.


  • Soft Targets: Although Abedi’s reasons for choosing the Manchester Arena are not yet known, it is notable that he struck a “soft” target, which tend to be easier to access than protected and guarded public and government buildings, for example. The Europol 2016 terrorist trend report noted that ISIS is focusing more on soft targets “because they are more effective than attacks on critical infrastructure, the military, police and other hard targets.” The same trend is emerging in the U.S., as we noted in our 2016 report; terrorists are moving away from symbolic targets in favor of targets of convenience, as in the case of the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting.

  • ISIS: One day after the Manchester attack, ISIS claimed responsibility. Although security officials have not yet found evidence of a direct link to ISIS, it is usually the case that when ISIS claims responsibility for an attack, some connection exists between the attacker and the organization, as noted here: “When ISIS claims Responsibility for Attacks in the U.S.”   In the U.S., ISIS continues to exert significant influence over would-be terrorists via social media-driven propaganda and recruitment efforts.