In the aftermath of the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in London's Woolwich yesterday, questions have surfaced on how best to describe the events - are labels such as “terrorism” either warranted or even accurate? While the facts are still emerging, it is now clear the attackers were both British of Nigerian heritage, with one named as 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo who, prior to adopting radical Islamist views, is alleged to have dabbled in petty crime. The men attacked Lee Rigby in South East London with a range of knives before being shot by police officers, as they attempted to turn on them.
Many have questioned why the murder has received such unprecedented coverage, with some pointing out that the equally brutal murder of 75 year old Mohammed Saleem, stabbed to death as he returned home from his local mosque in Birmingham earlier this month, received comparatively little attention. In both cases, a violent minority may be implicated in a murder with political dimensions, in one case politically radicalised Muslims, in the other, the Far-Right. Both could be dubbed a form of ‘terrorism’ and yet, only one has been.
It is a rather trite observation to state that the term ‘terrorism’ has become eminently politicised, used much more readily and easily to refer to violence by certain types of political dissidents, such as those whose violence targets the majority, than to refer, as it was originally devised, to states, or groups targeting minorities.
And yet, there are significant aspects of this case which appear to fit the ‘terrorism’ label. Amongst these, the nature of the target - a British soldier - and the identity of the perpetrators - radical young Muslims - as well as the stated motivation. When asked about his motive by an eyewitness, one of the men responded, “because he has killed Muslim people in Muslim countries”, “I killed him because he killed Muslims and I am fed up with people killing Muslims in Afghanistan”. He added: "You will never be safe. Remove your government". What’s more, the style of the attack, undertaken and filmed in full public view with the objective of publicising the actions to a wider audience, is reminiscent of a strategy employed by the media-savvy loose network, often referred to as Al Qaeda. While there is evidence to suggest Michael Adebolajo became radicalised through the now-banned al-Muhijaroun, the group is well known to security services who monitor it closely and it treads a fine line between espousing hate and undertaking violent actions. Though the group may have laid the foundations for a binary and simplistic worldview, it is likely that further motivating factors were involved in the move to action.
"We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth," one of the attackers told onlookers. To those familiar with Al Qaeda’s discourse, this is all too familiar. A veneer of Islamist rhetoric dressing up opposition to the presence of western troops in Muslim majority countries. The perpetrators need never have met anyone vaguely even affiliated to Al Qaeda, they may have simply imbibed the rhetoric, easily accessible online and in the pamphlets and clips of extremists distributed in a murky underground network.
In a posting on a jihadist website in January this year, Al Qaeda said 'coming strikes' would target the 'heart of the land of non-belief' and that attacks would be 'group, lone-wolf operations and booby-trapped vehicles'. If indeed the men turn out to be self radicalised Al Qaeda groupies, the attack would seem to suggest that the security services have become efficient in countering more elaborate plots and that extremists are now left with the “last resort” tactic advocated by Al Qaeda and its satellites - rogue attacks by individual foot soldiers – basic and simple to undertake, requiring little planning or logistics and hence less likely to be foiled. The most recent "lone wolf", self-radicalising extremist was Frenchman Mohamed Merah, who killed three soldiers as well as three Jewish schoolchildren and a teacher in March 2012. If this is indeed the trend in the latest Al Qaeda attacks, they indicate just how weakened the network’s reach in Europe has become.
So should the Woolwich attack be dubbed terrorism? Yes, it appears to fit into the evolving pattern of Al Qaeda inspired attacks. But should we be worried? Not really. Al Qaeda-style terrorism in Europe peaked with the coordinated attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London on 7/7. The most recent plots, from a foiled crude bomb plot at Glasgow airport in 2007, to yesterday’s knife attack on a soldier, are an indication of just how limited their scope now is in Europe.
The fact is the perpetrators want this to be perceived as an act of terrorism. Doing so would put them in a league with the Al Qaeda aficionados they have idealised. Ultimately, it vindicates their sense of purpose, having “succeeded” in etching their names on the wall of terror, alongside the Bin Ladens and Mohammad Sidique Khans of this world. That’s precisely why they requested that the public film their actions and why they appeared to relish a dramatic confrontation with the police. Like all Al Qaida attacks, the force of the attack lies in the ripples of fear and division created as a consequence. A successful attack against European targets is measured not in victims but in the pandemonium and fear fostered.
Thankfully, the British “keep calm and carry on” attitude has largely prevailed. Despite a worrying spike in attacks on Muslims centres in the immediate aftermath, the message from the political class has been broadly reassuring. Cameron was right not to return too promptly from Paris and to advise soldiers to keep wearing their uniform in public. Muslim organisations have vocally condemned the attack and stood united with their fellow citizens, a blow to the intended wedge Al Qaeda seeks to put in place in order to attract its recruits.
Terrorism it might be, but the critical concern now should be to avoid the politicisation of public fear, further unnecessarily impingeing on our civil liberties. In 2009, former head of MI5 Dame Stella Rimington denounced the exploitation of public fear of terrorism to restrict civil liberties, while campaign group Liberty repeatedly warned that, “the risk of terrorism has been used as the basis for eroding our human rights and civil liberties”. Several peers have already pushed for the government to resurrect the communications data bill, rebranding it a tool to fight terrorism. John Reid has reappeared to call for the total observation of all our data communications. So although Cameron has said he wants to avoid “kneejerk responses”, we must remain vigilant. For our security, yes, but also even more crucially, for our freedoms.