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Former NY Times London Bureau Chief, John Fisher Burns, on the Manchester Bombing

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The Transcript:

HH: I am joined from England by John Fisher Burns, one of the world’s greatest foreign correspondents, long with the New York Times, a bureau chief practically everywhere, the winner of two Pulitzers. John, good morning, and our condolences, our sympathies from all in the United States, I’m sure you’ve heard that, but it really is about as awful a terror attack as I’ve seen since 9/11, given the nature of the victims.

JFB: It is. It is. It’s absolutely shocking and totally appalling, and it makes you wonder how much more evil can these people be?

HH: Hard to imagine. Let me ask you, John, many Americans don’t know much about Manchester. They know it’s there. They root for Manchester United, but they don’t know much about it. Can you give us a little sense of the community that was so badly devastated?

JFB: Yes, Manchester has an interesting history. It’s the second city of the country. It was in the 19th and for much of the period of the 20th Century a great industrial powerhouse. It is still, to some extent. But it has suffered, as has so much of European and indeed, American industry over the last 15 or 20 years. It has, you know, two world-renowned football clubs, and it has, like its neighbor city, Liverpool, and for many of the same reasons, tremendously strong sense of community spirit which we’ve seen very much in evidence over the last 36 hours since the attack took place.

HH: Now I am not familiar with the demographics of Manchester, but while I am aware, because I read the MI5 reports, that there is a jihadist threat throughout England. I’d never thought of it in connection with Manchester. Were you surprised by the location of this attack in the way that you were perhaps not surprised by the truck attack near Big Ben?

JFB: Well, it was a point that Mrs. May, the Prime Minister, made yesterday, and it immediately caught my attention. She said, and I forget the exact words, but she made reference to the fact that this was the first major attack of its kind in the north of England. And on the one hand, of course, that’s to reflect that the capital is London, that that by its very nature is going to attract a lot of the attention of these people, these attackers. On the other hand, since these attacks come out of Islam, even if they’re not themselves anything to do with mainstream Islam, the attacker in this case was once again a Muslim of Libyan origin. And there are very large Muslim communities in the north of England. We’ve seen Muslim communities in the midlands, as they call it in England, which is to the south of Manchester, between Manchester and London, before. Some of the people involved in the 2005 attacks on public transport in London which killed more than 50 people, which was the last attack of this sort of scale in the U.K., had origins in the midlands and the northern midlands. But this is the first time that an attack of this kind has occurred in the north. It could have political repercussions in the sense that of course, there is a general election underway, suspended at the moment, understandably, and the outcome of that general election is likely to turn in substantial measure on what happens in traditionally Labour voting constituencies in the north of England. And there is a possibility, although this is yet to be unclear, but it’s a possibility that this attack will drive more Labour voters into the hands of the Conservatives. But that’s highly speculative at this point.

HH: There is a cover of the Sun this morning which has Saffie, the 8 year old, the youngest murder victim, and then the picture of the suicide bomber along with the headline that he had secret jihadi training, and a Desk 8 tweet that he was trained in terror by IS warlords. What do you know about this, John Fisher Burns? Is it in fact the case?

JFB: Well, I think this is all highly speculative. There’s been no official statement of that kind. As much as we know, Salman Abedi is of Libyan origin, but born in the United Kingdom. And I think that’s a factor, has been a factor in a number of terrorist attacks in this country that is particularly disturbing, because it goes directly to the question of the failures in assimilation of large numbers of young Muslim people, now very many of them, and second and third generation. And this, in the case of this young man, he would be the first generation of his family born in this country. There have been reports that his family have returned to Libya, leaving two of their four children, including Mr. Abedi himself, the bomber, here.

HH: Yeah, in the Times, it reports he went back to Libya three weeks ago and came back recently, like days ago, according to one of his friends. That would be, if he was known to the security services, and so it sort of underscores something I think you’ve told us before. There just aren’t enough security service people to meet this kind of a threat when thousands of people are traveling on their passports to jihadi-dominated regions.

JFB: That’s absolutely true, and it’s a point that the security service chiefs and the Prime Minister themselves, herself, and remember that Mrs. May as Home Secretary of interior minister in European terms in this country for six years before she became prime minister, it’s a point that she’s often made, which is that the government has increased the manpower and the resources of the security services in this country very greatly over the last, not just this government, but the Labour government before it. They’ve doubled the manpower of the domestic intelligence and security agency, MI5. But even with that increase in manpower, there are more active cells in this country than they have the resources to follow. To give you an idea of the scope of this, I read somewhere quite recently that it takes, in order to conduct round the clock surveillance of a fugitive or potential jihadi bomber, it takes 24 trained people just for one man. So obviously, what they do, what they have to do is, and they keep repeating this, they have to prioritize. And that gets into extremely difficult territory. At what point does somebody who might turn violent actually get into the planning process? And they’ve said for many years now that the threats, threat level has to remain very high. It’s now the highest it’s been in many years, critical, precisely because of that, because they don’t have the resources in order to keep on top of every possible suspect.

HH: I’m talking with John Fisher Burns, longtime bureau chief of the New York Times in places as far flung as Iraq and China and Afghanistan and India. John, it must be somewhat startling for a Brit like you, Cambridge educated, to come back and live in a country that is apparently as prone, though not really as prone, to violence as those Arab and Afghan capitals in which you once hunkered down every night behind the wire.

JFB: It is, but you know, now that I’m no longer constantly getting on airplanes to the most distant, and in some cases, nastier points on the compass, one thing that strikes me is how I think lacking in prescience people like me were not to realize that the great divide between our world and that world was shrinking rapidly, and that we were not any longer going to be able to live, and this, I’m talking about over the last 15 or 20 years, we were not any longer going to be able to live without the impact of that divided world on our home communities. Another thought that comes to mind is that whilst these terror attack are perfectly terrible, we have to, I think, give credit to the intelligence and security services both in the United States, here and elsewhere in Europe, that there haven’t been more attacks. I mean, this is, May is the first attack with mass casualties since 2005. There have been, of course, quite recently, there was the attack on Westminster Bridge and on Parliament in London. As I recall, five people died in that. But the security services have been remarkably successfully in apprehending and interrupting all kinds of attacks. So whilst it’s bad, it could have been a lot worse.

HH: I will be right back, and if I can persuade John Fisher Burns, longtime foreign correspondent for the New York Times, two time Pulitzer winner, to stay with us to talk about ramifications of this attack, I will.

— – — — –

HH: John Fisher Burns, the alert has been raised to critical. This is only the third time since 9/11 that Great Britain has been placed on this level of alert, which means another attack is imminent. What does that actually mean in terms of the life of the ordinary Brit?

JFB: Well, of course, within a country of 65 million people, most people, the overwhelming majority of people, as they did in the United States after 9/11, continued to live their lives in a completely normal fashion. And there’s a great deal of confidence in the competence of the security forces and the police to deal with this. They were fortunate, in a sense, that being able to identify this attacker almost immediately, because he went to his death, and the deaths of those 22 victims, carrying ID, his actual ID. And they were able to progress beyond that. As you’ve already said this morning, to the arrest of several other people, and they were able to say by lunchtime yesterday that there were indications that this was a plot, it wasn’t a lone wolf attack.

HH: Right.

JFB: …that al-Abedi had accomplices, which is why they, Mrs. May, the Prime Minister and the government emergency committee called the Cobra Committee, decided to raise the threats to critical. That wasn’t, as I said, repeatedly, that wasn’t because they had any firm evidence that there were to be more attacks, but that they couldn’t rule them out. No doubt, much will now depend on the interrogation of the people that they’ve arrested.

HH: John Fisher Burns, I don’t want to politicize this, but there is an election in your country on June 8th. Last week, I had dinner with Matthew Elliott, who is the chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign, and John O’Connell, who’s the chief executive of the U.K’s Taxpayer’s Alliance. And it was off the record, so I won’t quote them, but I think it’s fair to say Tories were feeling very optimistic about the vote, perhaps even reaching the Tony Blair-level landslide of the early 90s. What, if anything, do you think an attack like this does on the vote? The campaigning is suspended, but the election goes forward, correct, on June 8th?

JFB: It’s very hard at this stage to tell, but I think that the strongest possibility here is that the Tory campaign, which has run into a bit of trouble for domestic reasons having to do with Mrs. May announcing some quite radical plans for the funding of Socialcare, which would impact heavily on the middle classes who of course are, sorry, are for the most part a rather strong Tory source of support. So as of three days ago, the Tory support had halved from something in close to 20% in the polls over Labour to something a little bit less than 10%. That was predictable. Those sorts of gaps normally do narrow. But in terms of the impact of this attack, I think the general feeling is it’s more likely to help the Conservatives than Labour, because Labour, as you know, and Jeremy Corbyn, have probably the most left wing leader that they have had in 25 years, possibly since the Second World War.

HH: And their Home Secretary, an avowed support of the IRA with a bombing campaign behind the provisional IRA. I was stunned to read that. But in terms of what happens, we have one minute left, if she does win the reelection, is there anything they can do differently about this terror threat than has been done to date? It seems to me the U.K. is fully mobilized, John Fisher Burns.

JFB: It is fully mobilized. I think there’s a general recognition that there’s going to have be more resources yet beyond the doubling of the manpower of MI5, and of its counterpart organizations at Scotland Yard, and indeed in the external intelligence service, MI6. There is, of course, a question of tightening border controls, but that’s not going to help in the case of people like Abedi and the London, Westminster-Parliament bomber. He wasn’t a bomber. In fact, the chap who killed five people at Westminster a month ago, because they were both domestic British born. So they’re going to have British passports.

HH: Wow, what a conundrum. John Fisher Burns, thank you for spending time with us this morning. As always, very enlightening.

End of interview.


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