Was the brutal south London killing of a British soldier actually an act of terrorism?
- By H. A. HellyerH.A. Hellyer is nonresident fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, and associate fellow in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.
Some things change, some stay the same. For the first time in eight years, after the London bombings of July 7, 2005, a British citizen has been killed on British soil in a radical extremist attack — this time in the gruesome slaying of an off-duty soldier in southeast London on May 22. Video footage of the bloodstained perpetrators and multiple eyewitness accounts suggest British citizens were again guilty of the crime. In both cases, the attackers’ motivations were expressed in the language of religion — specifically, Islam.
But much has changed since that July morning when Britain was horrifically awakened to the world of post-9/11 domestic terrorism. The 2005 bombings were suicide attacks in which the perpetrators killed themselves and 52 others, injuring approximately 700 more. If nothing else, the human cost was quantitatively less in the attack this week — and the perpetrators did not take their own lives. In 2005, moreover, the bombings were relatively well coordinated, hitting four separate targets in different parts of London. In comparison, the murder of Lee Rigby near his barracks in Woolwich would have required exceedingly little in the way of planning. As tragic — and as sensational — as his murder was, it was not a repeat of the 7/7 bombings.
In the aftermath of the bombings, I served as deputy convener for the British Home Office’s working group on "tackling extremism and radicalization." Our findings identified multiple motivating factors that appear to be present whenever a terrorist attack takes place: radical ideology, opposition to British foreign policy, and identity-based or socioeconomic grievances. These factors vary from person to person — and their relative importance to a given attack often fluctuates — but their role in any terrorist attack is almost a foregone conclusion. Despite the fact that these factors continue to exist in Britain, however, the country has not experienced any attacks on the scale of the 7/7 bombings. In fact, the real story of the May 22 attack seems to be its low-tech execution and apparent lack of preparation.
Over the coming days and weeks, the British public will probably be animated by discussions of whether or not this was even a terrorist attack — a debate that ultimately will be settled in a court of law, but has not halted senior politicians from drawing their own conclusions. That decision will not be without consequence, as there are specific legal provisions that apply to terrorism that could drastically affect sentencing in any trial. The definition of terrorism under the relevant provisions in English law would seem to apply to this case, but again, that will be for a judge to decide.
The discussion will not end there, though. British society at large — and its elected politicians — will need to decide if the current definition makes sense — or whether knifing someone on the street ought to be treated as murder regardless of the motive. Indeed, the most similar incident in recent memory was last month’s stabbing by a suspect of Caucasian origin of a Pakistani man in Birmingham. The police have not ruled out the possibility of racial motivation in that case, but it was not reported as a terrorist attack. Accordingly, the incident was treated as a simple police matter — far from warranting a special cabinet session chaired by the prime minister.
While the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" are often flung around liberally by the news media, they have been used far more sparingly in legal terms. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, only 107 convicts in Britain have been classified as "terrorists" under English law — and herein lies some good news. Since 9/11, more than 2,000 people have been arrested under legislation pertaining to terrorism in Britain; of those, 312 were convicted of terrorism-related offenses, including murder, illegal possession of firearms, and explosives offenses, and the rest were convicted of non-terrorism related offenses or released. Since the 7/7 attacks in 2005, there have been many more terrorist plots on British soil, but they have all been foiled, with the would-be perpetrators not only being halted, but convicted through the legal process.
Britain now must identify the roots of what happened on May 22, an exercise that will ultimately necessitate difficult policy choices. In 2005, three areas of particular importance had already been identified: religious radicalization, rejection of certain foreign policies, and social isolation or other socioeconomic grievances. All of these were widely accepted within the security services, police force, and larger professional counterterrorism sector — but each was handled with varying degrees of seriousness, and not without counter-productive measures.
In subsequent years, the first factor, radicalization, was certainly taken a lot more seriously inside and outside of government. But it’s not clear how much this actually achieved. This is particularly the case when one considers that the radical ideology that animates terrorists is not being taught in religious institutions in Britain, but outside of the country entirely. The predominant opinion in the British security establishment is that the key sources for such radical ideas are not within local mosques — but via the borderless Internet from preachers that do not reside in Britain. Demanding that Muslim British institutions "take the war to the extremists" might be an attractive fix, but it fails to recognize where the problems actually lie — and how solutions might be found. Indeed, such institutions are essentially irrelevant to this discussion, as they have little or no impact, positive or negative, on radical extremists at present.
Coupling security paradigms with socioeconomic factors proved even less helpful. The government’s PREVENT strategy, which was supposed to neutralize potential radicalizing forces, actually undermined both security and community cohesion by conflating the two, confusing the priorities within each, and leading to a more securitized public discourse vis-à-vis Muslim communities. Years on, those communities in Britain are increasingly vilified in mainstream media and public discourse — and not just by far-right pundits. Anti-Muslim rhetoric can even turn deadly: We know, for example, that Anders Breivik was moved to massacre people in Norway two years ago by exactly this kind of discourse. Likewise, it is entirely possible that the killing of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham may have been motivated by a similar ideology as well.
The issue of foreign policy is a little more controversial to be sure, but in 2010, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former director general of MI5, declared to Parliament: "Our involvement in Iraq radicalized, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam." The
videos of the 7/7 bombers, as well as the callous videotaped confession of the attacker on Wednesday, bear out that at least in their minds, they were acting in response to unjustifiable British action against Muslim communities overseas. That kind of sentiment is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, and may serve to animate, rightly or not, others in the future. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to prevent that.
As problematic as the official response to the 7/7 bombings has been, it appears that at least one lesson has been learned since then: Investigations into such attacks must be approached with full and total transparency in order to minimize the risk of them happening again. In the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, the British government resisted all efforts to launch an official public inquiry into the conduct of the country’s security services. Eventually, an inquest was held, but without covering all aspects of the circumstances leading to the bombings. This time, however, the government appears to be acting more quickly, immediately announcing a House of Commons inquiry after it emerged that the two men arrested in connection with the May 22 attack had been known to MI5 for eight years; one man is being questioned by the police after revealing on the BBC that the suspect told him MI5 tried to recruit him at one point. When one considers that one suspect, Michael Adebolajo, was apparently best friends with a British soldier, seemingly without any conflict, one really has to ask: "What happened?"
There is indeed a radical religious interpretation at work in inspiring and motivating young men to carry out such deeds — that should not be underestimated. Yet, there are also other factors that need to be recognized in order to be appropriately dealt with. Whether it was a terrorist act or not in terms of legal definition matters less than ensuring that British society at large comes through this episode intact, and refuses to allow radical ideologues to direct the British collective response. That is, after all, precisely what radical extremists desire — to restructure and redefine how Britons live. They cannot be allowed to win.