The Woolwich atrocity takes terrorism to a new stage, when the murder of one man can be as shocking as a bomb attack, and harder to prevent, writes Dani Garavelli
THE most shocking aspect of the footage taken immediately after the killing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich was, arguably, its ordinariness; as the 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo stood, the meat cleaver still in his bloody hands, and tried to justify his actions in terms of the West’s foreign policies, a woman carrying shopping bags brushed past.
There was bravery at the scene, yes, as passer-by Ingrid Loyau-Kennett tried to reason with the other attacker, but there was also an air of unreality, as if the corpse of the slain drummer wasn’t lying in their midst. Certainly, there was none of the mass panic we have come to associate with conventional terrorism – an explosion which hurls debris everywhere or an indiscriminate volley of gunshots which sends hysterical bystanders running for cover. While traditionally such attacks derive their power from the grand gesture – hitting prominent targets or causing mass casualties – the impact of this one lay in its utter domesticity.
If 9/11 proved al-Qaeda had the capacity to pull off a catastrophic act of violence, Woolwich demonstrated large cells, sophisticated networks, and high-tech weaponry are not necessary for extremists to attract global attention; in the 21st Century, it seems, absolutely anyone can take up arms for “the cause”.
“Lone wolf” attacks, such as the one last week, are a nightmare for the security services. Where “spectaculars” like the Madrid or London bombings take months of planning, self-starter terrorists strike at random and at a few hours’ notice. With few accomplices and no chain of command, there is little intelligence for the security services to pick up on. And yet, as the war against terror has dismantled al-Qaeda’s hierarchy, as heightened security and better intelligence have led to a succession of large-scale plots being foiled, they have become increasingly common.
From Roshonara Choudhry’s attempted assassination of MP Stephen Timms in 2010 to last month’s bombings of the Boston marathon, the most high-profile attacks have involved so-called Nike terrorists who – inspired by American-Yemeni preacher Anwar al-Awlaki’s “Just Do It” mantra – carry out attacks on their own initiative; ironically, it seems, the success of counter-terrorism initiatives has spawned a new generation of extremists who are capable of fomenting fear with far fewer resources than their predecessors.
Lone wolf or wolf pack terrorist attacks are not a new phenomenon, but in the past they have tended to involve neo-Nazis, white supremacists or single issue campaigners, such as anti-abortionists. In the 1990s, there was David Copeland, a neo-Nazi who waged a 13-day nail bombing campaign against London’s black, Bangladeshi and gay communities, and Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma bomber who killed 168 people in an anti-government protest. More recently, anti-semitic James von Brunn killed a guard at the US Holocaust Museum in Washington and fascist Anders Breivik carried out a bombing and mass shooting in Norway.
Even within Islamic fundamentalism, there has been a history of lone wolves; just three months after 9/11, British convert Richard Reid tried to detonate explosives in his shoe on a flight from Paris to Miami. But a growth in the number of disaffected British and US Muslims becoming radicalised and the burgeoning of social media has brought the lone wolf to the fore.
Since 2006, security services have intercepted dozens of major plots, including one to blow up 10 airliners using bombs disguised as soft drinks; the bulk of those attacks which have come to fruition have involved self-starters such as Nidal Hasan, a US Army major alleged to have shot dead 13 people at Fort Hood, a military base near Texas, in 2009. Some, like Mohammed Merah, who carried out three gun attacks in Toulouse, are highly trained (indeed some question Merah’s lone wolf status); others like Choudhry and the Woolwich attackers are not. But what they have in common is that they are radicalised, at least in part, by propaganda on the internet and they are not part of an organised cell or command structure.
The shift towards lone wolf operators has been predicted for some time. Last year, the Royal United Services Institute, an international defence and security think-tank, produced a report charting the changing face of Islamic terrorism. Its author, Professor Michael Clarke said that with al-Qaeda’s capacity to run training camps diminished, the greatest threat was now from homegrown extremists who had either engaged in terrorist tourism, heading off for wars or insurgencies in countries such as Somalia, Yemen or Nigeria, or taught themselves basic bomb-making skills from the internet.
According to analyst Valentina Soria, counter-terrorism agencies are increasingly concerned about the influence of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) which acts more “as an instigator than an operator”. Its leading figure, al-Awlaki – the figure behind Inspire, a kind of online self-help manual – was killed in a drone strike in 2011, but his sermons, with their exhortation to the faithful to launch DIY attacks, live on.
Choudhry, who dropped out of her university course just weeks before she stabbed Timms had downloaded hundreds of al-Awlaki’s sermons; Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the brothers suspected of carrying out the Boston marathon attacks are said to have learned how to make pressure cooker devices from an Inspire article entitled How To Make a Bomb In Your Mom’s Kitchen.
It is not difficult to see how the alleged Woolwich attackers, who attempted to decapitate their victim, fit into this pattern. Adebolajo is a UK-born convert whose parents were from Nigeria; although Nigeria has its own jihadist group, Boko Haram, he is not thought to have been linked to it. Rather he was radicalised by attending meetings of the now banned group al-Muhajiroun founded by Anjem Choudary, who last week refused to explicitly condemn the attack. Adebolajo, who is said to have served a prison sentence at some point, is also believed to have been influenced by banned cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed who was secretly filmed preaching that the beheading of Islam’s enemies is justified. Last year, Adebolajo was arrested on his way to join al-Shabaab, a jihadist group fighting in Somalia. It is believed he was preaching on the streets of Woolwich a few days before the attack.
Less is known about his alleged accomplice Michael Adebowale, who has a Nigerian mother, but he too is said to be a convert well known for handing out extremist leaflets. The pair may have been influenced by Parviz Khan, who was jailed for life after he admitting planning to lure a British Muslim soldier off the streets and behead him, but the debt they owe Inspire was clear in their decision to mow Lee Rigby down with their car (as recommended in its pages).
Where last week’s attack differed from any previous Islamic attack, was in the way the pair harnessed social media. “If you think back to my parents’ day, the terrorist act happened, but you kind of heard about it third or fourth hand – you saw grainy photos in the newspapers and on the news,” says Jeffrey DeMarco, a lecturer in criminology and forensic psychology at Kingston University. “Now you can see it as almost as it happens – that ability to broadcast a message so quickly to so many people allows us, as victims and perpetrators, to internalise the messages. We feel for the victims or the individuals who carried out the atrocity [depending on where our sympathies lie].”
Last week’s attack also diverged from our conventional perception of terrorism in its sheer physical savagery (with bombs and guns, the perpetrator is more detached from the victim), but Jeffrey D Simon, author of The Lone Wolf: Understanding The Growing Threat, says terrorists constantly have to change their methodology if they are to retain their power to shock. “People become desensitised to the normal flow of terrorism, such as car bombing after bombing – so what do you do? You either do something which claims even more casualties or depart from previous techniques to get everyone’s attention. The brutal killing on the streets of London is getting worldwide attention because it’s different and because it forecasts a dangerous future trend in terrorist tactics.”
MI5’s admission that both Adebolajo and Adebowale had previously come to their attention has brought criticism and a parliamentary inquiry has been set up. But most experts agree that, with thousands of young British men now radicalised, it is difficult for the security services to work out which of those preaching jihad will go on to commit violent acts and which won’t. “We have had amendments to civil liberties after the 7/7 and 9/11 bombings; we have had the Anti-Terrorism Act and the Patriot Act in the USA, we can’t really do any more,” DeMarco says.
But Simon, a lecturer in the department of political science at UCLA, says the internet is a double-edged sword which also encourages self-starters to expose themselves. “Like everyone else, lone wolves love to talk. Most can’t resist the temptation to send a blog or an email or post a manifesto – almost every one I studied had given some sort of indication they were sympathetic to a particular movement or were about to embark on a violent attack,” he says.
As Rigby’s family struggle to come to terms with his brutal death, anti-terrorism officers are waiting to interview his alleged attackers, who are stable in hospital after suffering gunshot wounds when the police opened fire. Doubtless they will be scouring chat rooms for clues that their extremist views were about to tip into violence. What is already clear, however, is that the security services need to revise their strategy and find ways to tackle this new, yet strangely back-to-basics, form of terrorism. «