Sun, June 26, 2022


British police declare Liverpool taxi explosion a terrorist incident, but admit the motive remains unknown

LONDON - British authorities are scrambling to understand the motives of the suspected bomber in a Liverpool taxi explosion who died in the blast, but that hasnt stopped them from quickly declaring the incident a terrorist attack.

On Sunday, a taxi exploded outside of Liverpool Women's Hospital, and the following day, police designated it a terrorist incident even while acknowledging that "the motivation for this incident is yet to be understood." Police have not pointed to a target for the attack or confirmed details reported in local media about the suspect's background - but said it was declared a terrorist incident "given all the circumstances."

British police have broad discretion in what they label a "terrorist incident," as long as it's consistent with the definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000, which includes the use or threat of serious violence "for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause."

"The British state is fairly secretive," said Tim Wilson, director of the Handa Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "In these kind of investigations, you get glimpses of how things work," but it's not as transparent as in the United States and some other European countries, he said.

Analysts said that in this case, the decision to label it as terrorism may be related to the use of an improvised explosive device in the attack, as well as other reasons not declared publicly.

According to guidance on the Crown Prosecution Service website, when explosives are used or threatened to be used, "it is not necessary to prove that the action is designed to influence the government or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, as is the case with other terrorist offences."

"A bomb will always excite the attention of the terrorism police; there aren't many people throwing around bombs except for terrorists in this country," said Clive Walker, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Leeds. He noted that once an investigation is deemed a terrorist investigation, the local police force will have access to national resources, including intelligence services, specialist forensic officers and translation help. And it would still be possible for the police to "remove the terrorism interest" at a later stage, he added.

"There's no clear bright line between terrorism and non-terrorism designations," Walker said. "It's based on judgment and the evidence before you. I don't know for sure, but the common pattern is for police to go to his house, find his computer, arrest his friends," who are sometimes then released.

Walker said only about 25% of those arrested under the Terrorism Act are ever charged. "It's part of the investigative ploy to arrest a lot of people, find out what they know," he said.

Analysts said that there will likely be much more that the police aren't telling the public.

"Our investigators play things quite close to their chest, and they will tell you it's a terrorist investigation - and they won't tell you what they know about that," said Nick Aldworth, Britain's former counterterrorism national coordinator. "It's quite common because there could be outstanding suspects or other leads you don't want to lose," he said.

Here's what is known: Police named the passenger who was found dead as 32-year-old Emad al-Swealmeen. They indicated he was a suspect in a bombing that involved an "improvised explosive device" and suggested that he built the device that exploded when he was inside the taxicab.

Police arrested four of al-Swealmeen's "associates" but released them shortly afterward without charge. They also searched al-Swealmeen's residence, where they found what they called "significant items," but did not provide further details.

The Greater Manchester Police said Tuesday that they had no further comment and did not respond to questions about how they had come to designate it a "terrorist incident."

British authorities have gotten it wrong before. Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, British police arrested Lotfi Raissi, a pilot who spent five months in custody after police falsely accused him of training hijackers responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington. Years later, the British government said he was eligible for up to 2 million pounds ($2.7 million) in compensation.

For now, much of the alleged details about the suspect have trickled out in the British press.

A Christian couple who live in Liverpool told British media Tuesday that al-Swealmeen had lived with them in 2017. They said he had converted to Christianity around that time and had spent a few months at a mental health institution in the past.

The couple said they were in shock at the news of the attack.

"We were living cheek by jowl. There was never any suggestion of anything amiss," Malcolm Hitchcott told ITV News, describing the man as a "very quiet fellow" who impressed with the "depth of his prayers" and knowledge of the Bible.

His wife, Elizabeth Hitchcott, said she was thankful he had not killed anybody else. "We just loved him," she told the BBC. "He was a lovely guy."

Malcolm Hitchcott was quoted as saying that al-Swealmeen was baptized at Liverpool Cathedral.

Liverpool Cathedral is near the hospital where the blast took place, and, at the exact time of Sunday's attack, it was holding a Remembrance ceremony, an annual gathering where people gather to pay tribute to Britain's war dead.

In a statement, leaders at the cathedral said they were shocked "at the news that the bomber on Sunday, was connected to our community."

"Clearly we cannot speculate on the motivations of this individual. However we are clear that the actions of an individual do not reflect a whole community and we remain united with all in the city and country who work for peace," they added.

The reason the device was detonated outside the women's hospital remains unknown, police said, although they noted that the Remembrance ceremonies happening nearby were a "line of inquiry."

It may also be possible that the hospital was the target. "The location is potentially the most disturbing aspect," said Wilson, the academic. "What was the ultimate target? When I watch the video it looks like he took a taxi to a maternity hospital. There are horrific precedents of ISIS attacking maternity hospitals in Kabul," he said, using an acronym to refer to the Islamic State terrorist group.

On Monday, Russ Jackson, head of the counterterrorism police in northwestern England, said that it would likely take some time, "perhaps many weeks," until investigators are "confident on our understanding of what has taken place."

Published : November 17, 2021

By : The Washington Post