We are all appalled by the bombing in Manchester and it is hard to think of anything we can learn from this tragedy that we didn’t already know. We know radical Islamist terrorists continue to harbour a desire to kill innocents going about their normal business. We also know western societies cannot harden every venue, stop people gathering to enjoy themselves, or have the authorities watch every suspect 24/7; the freedoms we enjoy must continue to be enjoyed after all. Yet a failure to stop a terrorist attack can always teach us something.
In this instance, it may be that the operational planning took place when the suicide bomber Salman Abedi travelled to his parents' home in Libya just prior to his return to the UK; this could have been where the logistical facilitation was carried out. There are reports that the bomber’s brother and father have been arrested in Libya, which may give weight to the conclusion that the family is connected to a broader radical Islamist network.
This poses problems for security services: how does a liberal democracy impose limits on citizens who may travel to un- or semi-governed spaces in other countries where government writ may not extend, and where there may be legitimate reasons for people to travel. Currently the Australian foreign minister is able to label areas where listed terrorist organisations engage in hostile activities as ‘declared areas’ and entry there (for other than a legislatively-defined permissible reason) illegal. Currently only Mosul and Raqqa have been declared, but arguments could be mounted that the power should be used more broadly, to include places such as areas in Yemen, the Sinai and Libya for example and, given recent activity by an Islamic State-aligned group there, parts of the southern Philippines.
Such extensions would increase the reach of what is already a potentially strong power, but it would still not have stopped the Manchester bomber because such charges are retrospective in nature (the law has only been invoked once and the person involved remains in one of the declared areas so has yet to face trial).
Given the likely consequences of the Manchester bomber’s trip to Libya, and the proliferation of spaces where radical Islamist groups operate, it may well be time to tighten the legislation to not just include more declared areas but also to subject people who wish to travel to these places to an additional requirement. They could, for example, be required to gain authorisation from law enforcement agencies before they travel to such an area, regardless of their intended purpose.
If Salman Abedi had been required to seek authorisation before travelling to Libya, that may have prompted UK law enforcement agencies to look at him more closely, and perhaps deny him permission. Similarly, if such a requirement was in place, and he travelled without permission and returned, he would also have come to the attention of authorities and been subject to a greater degree of surveillance then he was. Of course there is always the ability in Australia to cancel people’s passports but this needs an evidentiary threshold. Expanding the use of declared areas is administratively difficult, and civil libertarians will argue it would infringe on an individual's rights, but when stopping terrorist attacks from radicalised Islamists is the goal and denying them the ability to transfer deadly skills in poorly controlled areas is one way of achieving this, then a broader use of Australia’s ‘declared areas’ legislation should be considered. Better to have the discussion now, rather than after a mass casualty attack in Australia.