The brutal 2013 London-area murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby is consistently invoked in terror groups’ videos and publications as a consequential car-and-cleaver attack that should be emulated by other lone or cell jihadists. Al-Shabaab dubbed one of the terrorists, Michael Adebolajo, their “Muslim of the Year” while reminiscing upon the attack in 2016, declaring “a room full of Mujahid Adebolajo is exactly what today’s world needs.”
On the fourth anniversary of this UK attack placed on a pedestal by jihadists, Salman Abedi, a native Briton like Adebolajo, detonated his bomb outside of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
The timing of the concert attack, as well as the advent of the Ramadan terror season with the ISIS bombing of a Baghdad ice cream shop filled with families, begs the question of whether terror advisories are truly informing and assisting the everyday traveler, commuter, shopper, diner or concert-goer.
In the United States, the complex threat environment is basically boiled down for the public like so: the threat is ever-present, the means are many, and laptop computers on airplanes may or may not be a good idea. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly quipped in a recent conversation with a Fox News host, “If he knew what I knew about terrorism, he’d never leave the house in the morning.”
Everyone who monitors even the open-source side of terror operations concurs the threat is bad, particularly considering the homegrown recruits who fly easily under the radar. But instead of just stoking Americans’ fears, let’s give concerned citizens a bit more to work with.
First, the threat levels. The post-9/11 color-coded system was ditched for the National Terrorism Advisory System, which is basically a bulletin consisting of a repackaged opening statement from any homeland security official at any open congressional hearing on domestic threats. Add practical information in terror advisories that can really help Americans make decisions for their families, taking into account, for example, religious holidays (like Ramadan, the peak terror season), days of note and events that draw big crowds or carry special symbolism as attack targets (the Orlando nightclub attack happened during the overlap of Ramadan and LGBT Pride Month), and anniversaries of previous attacks.
Second, go into greater depth about what terror groups are promoting in open-source materials and neuter their element of surprise by frankly discussing with the American public personal defensive strategies. Terror groups do throw out what seem to be far-fetched scenarios, such as ISIS’ recent “Dexter”-style suggestion that terrorists take out job or apartment ads to lure murder victims, but these are grounded in a sobering reality: proposed plots are being released in recruitment and instructional materials in several languages, including English, with an unknown vastness of readership and a definite U.S. audience. And some of the terror tutorials have leapt from the page to real life, with stabbings and truck rammings that debuted as how-to articles in terrorist recruiting magazines. Terror groups have also been following through on their oft-stated directive to put a heavier emphasis on very soft targets, like a concert packed with tweens.
Third, there should be a greater advisory focus on pre-attack situational awareness and what to do if someone finds herself at the scene of an attack. Discuss secondary explosions targeting people running from the first blast, or how residents should respond to a terror attack elsewhere in their city with the caution that it could be part of a developing spree. Situational awareness does not spoil summer travel, but it does say you shouldn’t get lost in the moment when watching fireworks with a large crowd in an idyllic beachfront city.
Terror advisories, which currently are renewed every few months with lots of carry-over information, need to be as dynamic and informative as possible—and mention, as the May 15 NTAS bulletin did not, need-to-know things like ISIS’ fondness for Ramadan attacks.
Bridget Johnson is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.