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The targeting of women and girls in Manchester may have been intentional

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 5/23/2017 James McAuley
A woman with two girls, carrying balloons from the Ariana Grande concert, eave a hotel in Manchester on Tuesday.OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images © Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images A woman with two girls, carrying balloons from the Ariana Grande concert, eave a hotel in Manchester on Tuesday.OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, England — At first, this one looked like all the others: randomly deadly, deliberately brutal.

In the last two years, mass killings claimed or inspired by the Islamic State have become a chilling reality in western Europe: unexpected and impromptu truck attacks, bombings, and shootings, in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin and London. Manchester — where 22 were killed in an assault Monday outside a concert — seemed like just the latest chapter in a deadly saga that has now claimed more than 300 lives.

But then there were the details. Among other things, this was a concert meant to celebrate female empowerment, and many of the victims were young British women there to take part.

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If, as claimed, this attack was carried out by an adherent of the Islamic State, the targeting of women could have been intentional.

“It’s very well known that misogyny is deeply rooted in the radical Islamist worldview,” said Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

On the stage Monday night was Ariana Grande, the 23-year-old American megastar —and self-styled “dangerous woman” — famous for lyrics that seek to champion female power and routines that exalt the female body.

“Dangerous Woman” is among Grande's most popular hits: “Don’t need permission,” the song begins, “Made my decision to test my limits.” Grande often appears on stage in cat ears or lingerie. The meaning of her performance — in Manchester, at least—was not lost on her audience.

Melissa Mason, 23, and Rhiana Fitzwilliam, 18, had traveled all the way from Cumbria in the far north of England to see Grande live in concert for the first time. They booked themselves a room in Manchester’s city center and were looking forward to ad­ven­ture — at the very least, time away from their café jobs.

But the sense of independence Grande so often preached in her music was stolen from them, they said, in an attack that seemed to capitalize on their joy and their youthful devotion to one of their favorite stars.

On Tuesday, what they remembered was that the arena the night before was filled with many women their age, “and Ariana Grande's age, too,” Mason added. “It seems purposeful.”

“Why us?” she added. “Why this concert?”

As British police continue their investigation into the motives behind the attack, these are questions that do not yet have clear answers.

In the statement released Tuesday taking credit for the attack, the Islamic State did not mention women explicitly, condemning instead what it called a “shameless concert arena.” At present, the assailant — identified by U.S. officials on the condition of anonymity as Salman Abedi -- is not known to have left behind any substantive indication as to his choice of venue.

For analysts, however, a through-line was clear enough even without a letter of intent: the venue was what it was; the victims were who they were.

“There’s a connection between the targeting of a concert like this and the enslavement of young girls in northern Iraq,” said Joshi.

For Joshi, Islamist ideology has long used the hatred of women as a starting point for condemning Western society seen as immoral and “decadent.” The same persecution of so-called “decadence,” he said, could be seen in a variety of “soft targets” since 9/11 -- cafe terraces in Paris, a seaside promenade in Nice, and especially a well-known gay night club in Orlando.

“If you go back to early Islamist documents,” he said, “misogyny and cultural hostility have often been two sides of the same coin.”

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