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Counterterrorism Expert Details Investigation Into Manchester Bombing


For more on the investigation into this attack in Manchester, we turn now to Raffaello Pantucci. He's a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute and joins us via Skype from London. Welcome to the program.


SHAPIRO: First, what do you make of the fact that, as we just heard, British authorities apparently had the suspect on their radar and yet this happened anyway?

PANTUCCI: In many ways, we could say that it's better that they did at least know who he was. So at least they were looking in the right places rather than not knowing who he was. It would be more shocking in many ways if suddenly it was someone who appeared out of the blue who could make bombs and kill this many people. The fact that at least he's shown up in investigations demonstrates that at least they're looking in the right places. The difficulty comes in the prioritization question, and this is what we've seen repeatedly over time with terrorist investigations

You have a large pool of people that you're looking at. In the U.K. at the moment, it's assessed to be about 3,000. But not all of them are people who you need or have the resources to dedicate attention to fully all the time. So you have to prioritize, and in prioritizing, you're choosing not to focus on some people. And unfortunately, sometimes you calibrate that wrongly.

SHAPIRO: And then there is of course this question of whether he made the bomb or whether he acquired the bomb from someone else. Can you talk a little bit about the explosives that were used and whether they might provide a clue as to the origins of this attack?

PANTUCCI: I'm certain that in this sort of investigation uncovering the explosive, where the - what exactly it was, you know, how exotic the chemicals used to sort of build it were, you (inaudible) start to get some sort of indicators about where it's actually come from and who's actually made it.

Ultimately the thing about bombs is while there are lots of recipes floating around, it's actually quite difficult to make a bomb that you can successfully and, you know, be certain will go off when you want it to. You know, history is littered with bomb makers who've, you know - whose devices have gone off too early or have failed to go off when they needed them to. And the fact that this one was able to go off when he wanted it to and caused this horrible carnage I think is a reflection of the fact that you are looking at something which required a certain amount of either training or preparation. Or someone made it for him.

SHAPIRO: Can we talk about the security environment? This bomb went off just outside the Manchester Arena. Can police do more to protect not just these big, crowded venues but also the area surrounding them?

PANTUCCI: I mean I think a lot of work has gone into that already - I mean this sort of - the idea of looking at crowded spaces like theaters, like concert halls, like sports stadiums is something that, you know, security services have been worrying about for a very long time. And in the U.K., really since the 7/7 bombings of 2005, we've had that as sort of a priority concern. Even thinking about sort of putting an airport-style security at train tube stations, underground stations in London.

But I think the difficulty is that you can sort of harden these targets, but what you'll end up doing is creating a new place where a crowd will assemble to try to get into the target. And then that becomes a potential target in itself. And so it's sort of - you're constantly creating new barriers, and these new barriers will undoubtedly sort of push the terrorists on potentially to other targets. But if someone's dedicated and really wants to launch an attack, they will find a target at the end of the day.

SHAPIRO: Briefly, ISIS has claimed responsibility for this attack. Is this consistent with what you would expect from the group?

PANTUCCI: It is certainly consistent with what I'd expect from the group. I think the question is the degree to which they may or may not have known or been involved with this individual. And we just don't know that at the moment. The claim that we saw seems a bit at divergence with what's actually taken place. And it's also not clear that in their statements they've revealed anything that showed prior knowledge or some detail about the individual that wasn't already in the public domain.

SHAPIRO: Thank you very much. That's Raffaello Pantucci, a counterterrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.