The Blog

The Woolwich Attack: Should We Feel Terrorised?‎

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. ‎

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich this week, 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 ‎Islamic 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 Qaida. 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 other ‎inspiration was 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 Qaida's discourse, this is all too familiar. A veneer of Islamic 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 Qaida, 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 Qaida 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 Qaida groupies, the attack ‎would seem to suggest that the security services have become much efficient in countering more ‎elaborate plots and that extremists are now left with the "last resort" tactic advocated by Al Qaida ‎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 indeed the trend of the latest Al ‎Qaida attacks, they indicate just how weakened the network's reach in Europe as become.‎

So should the Woolwich attack be dubbed terrorism? Yes, it appears to fit into the evolving pattern ‎of Al Qaida inspired attacks. But should we be worried? Not really. If Al Qaida 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 has become 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 Qaida aficionados they have idealised and ultimately, 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 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 ‎Qaida seeks to 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, to further unnecessarily impinge 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 have 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 and ‎John Reid has called for the total observation of all our data communications. 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.‎