23/05/2013 06:09 BST | Updated 22/07/2013 06:12 BST

The Woolwich Attacks Are Not New


All the evidence now strongly suggests that yesterday's knife attack in Woolwich was a terrorist incident, and the two culprits were al-Qaeda inspired, or motivated by similar violent ideas. Beyond that, caution is required. There is still much we do not know (although Twitter, predictably, has already named one suspect, and I won't repeat it here). It is being reported as a new departure, a new style, of terrorist activity. Assuming it is an al-Qaeda inspired attack, that is wrong on three counts.

First, it would not be surprising if the victim was a serving or former soldier. Soldiers have always been the most 'legitimate' targets in the minds of al-Qaeda inspired terrorists - wherever they are found. There was a foiled plot to behead a British soldier in 2007. Soldiers have long been the targets of attacks, from the Jewish resistance movement in 1945-6 to the IRA: it is not just from Islamists.

Second, this gory murder - butchering someone to death in plain daylight - is not that surprising either. In 2004 Dutch playwrite Theo Van Gogh was shot to death by Mohamed Bouyeri while on his way to work. After shooting Van Gogh, Bouyeri tried, and failed, to decapitate him as horrified members of the public looked on. I have argued for some time that this type of brutal street attack is in many ways the natural evolution of the al-Qaeda inspired threat in the UK. That, in part, is because of the incredibly good job security services have done disrupting major cells and arresting targets, which means those interested in violent activity are often small, amateur, self-starting groups, unable to launch spectacular attacks that require technical know-how and precision planning. Note, for example, earlier this year that violent, but very incompetent, Islamists were convicted for attempting to set off explosives at an English Defence League rally. Almost impossible to predict but capable of generating enormous attention because of the fear it produces.

Third, it appears the culrpits filmed the attack, and maybe asked passerbys to take photos. Certainly one of the men spoke for some time to one person filming. This is not a new departure either. Many al-Qaeda inspired individuals have tried to record their endeavours for posterity, often aimed at the YouTube generation. You may recall the celebrity-friendly martyrdom videos made by those convicted of plotting to blow up passenger jets over the Atlantic Ocean in 2006. They were filled with images of graphic, mindless violence and self-indulgence: Abdula Abdel Ali planned to "decorate" streets with body parts. The acting was cardboard - an impromptu cameraman even urged them to "give it some" - and the aim was narcissitic. In my detailed study of modern Islamist networks, I found that many young home-grown al-Qaeda terrorists are not attracted by religion or ideology alone - often their knowledge of Islamist theology is wafer thing and superficial - but also by the glorification of violence, the horrible infamous glamour that al-Qaeda type groups purports to offer.

Our response now should also be familiar: calm and measured. Not creating a sense of panic - this it what these people want - but not underestimating the threat either. And everyone should take some strange comfort from the fact that this types of mindless violence is almost impossible to stop: because that also shows how very few people in our country want to do it.