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Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Woolwich: Lone-wolves and the al Qaeda connection

The murder of a soldier in Woolwich last week by home-grown Islamic extremists signifies a dramatic turning-point in the struggle between religious fundamentalism and the West. It has been a difficult week for the country and the question that still resonates throughout the UK is why did such atrocities happen?

In the eyes of the overwhelming majority of its citizens, England is not at war with Islam. So why was a soldier killed in Woolwich by two British citizens invoking the name of Allah? The explanation offered by Michael Adebolajo is frequently heard,[1] and it parallels the logic employed by Roshonara Choudhry (see below) and the Boston Bombers. It is namely that during the past decade, Britain’s foreign policy and involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq has often proved a source of anger among British Muslims, and they are now fighting back. Adebolajo said, “the only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…He killed Muslim people in Muslim countries”.

For non-believers the notion of committing violent acts in solidarity with strangers living thousands of miles away may be an alien one. However, the Islamic concept of a global Ummah (community) is often hijacked by fundamentalists to try and justify their acts of terror. In the Qur’an the Ummah refers to the unity of Muslims all over the world; a pan-Islamic nation. Radicals such as Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo claim to identify with their ‘brothers and sisters’ fighting, and being killed abroad and feel embroiled in the same battle irrespective of their differing geographical locations. By this understanding, a Muslim killed in Bosnia or Iraq is akin to one’s blood brother or sister being slain. 

This interpretation has prompted a stream of British-born Islamists, often converts, to travel to jihadist training camps in the Middle East to join the war against the West. Former head of MI5, Jonathan Evans, warned in September 2010 that a “significant number of UK residents” were training abroad with jihadist groups and it was “only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab”. Last week, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police told the BBC that the police and security services were “particularly concerned” about people travelling from Britain to conflict areas such as Mali, Syria and Iraq. The BBC also reported that “one of the [Woolwich] attackers was last year stopped or arrested on his way to join al-Shabaab in Somalia”, but Michael Oluwatobi Adebowale and Michael Adebolajo are not thought to have acted as members of a terrorist organisation per se when they killed Lee Rigby. Instead they are believed to have been inspired by al Qaeda but with no formal ties to any organised group. They are being described as ‘lone-wolf terrorists’ by the media and security forces. 
Michael Adebolajo

Lone-wolf attacks have been in the news recently but the concept is far from new; MI5 has long feared that lone-wolf terrorists pose a major danger to British security. The term relates to individuals working alone, (although they may be affiliated to a loosely-connected network), who carry out extreme and violent attacks, usually on smaller, ‘softer’ targets than more traditional, structured terrorist groups. Al Qaeda has been a key player in promoting lone-wolf terrorism, even though in recent years it has become more of an ideology than a tangible organisation – a form of leaderless resistance. Shiraz Maher, Head of Outreach at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, said, “nearly a decade ago there was a debate within al Qaeda about the future of the organization…Afghanistan had been overrun by U.S. forces, the Taliban had been forced to retreat, and as a result al Qaeda lost its ability to train recruits there”. Such developments necessitated a change of tactics and since 2010 the organisation modified the way it brought its fight to the West by promoting the concept of ‘individual jihad’. 

Inspire, al Qaeda’s English-language magazine, has been linked to at least fifteen terrorism cases and acts as a how-to guide for its followers. It explains in detail how to carry out small-scale, DIY terror attacks and suggests: “don’t try and do another 9/11 or 7/7-style attack because invariably these things catch the attention of security services and you go to jail. Think small, think easy, think unsophisticated. Really scale it down to make it difficult to detect, because really it's a detection battle”. Magazines like Inspire and extremist videos posted on You Tube mean that individuals can become radicalised remotely and independently    Adebolajo and Adebowale may have been autonomously inspired by al Qaeda; the most recent issue of Inspire urged people to carry out knife attacks and to use cars as weapons. Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, aka the Boston Marathon bombers, also said they had learnt to build explosive devices by reading the online magazine. In 2010 MP Stephen Timms was stabbed during a meeting with his constituents in East London by Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old British student who told police she had become radicalised after watching al-Awlaki’s speeches online. This means, essentially anyone with access to the Internet and a knife can commit an act of brutality and claim it is an act of war or jihad.[2]

This is an unsettling thought and the reactions to the Woolwich murder have been dominated by anger, shock and fear. Despite the fact that Adebowale and Adebolajo only represented a minority extremist viewpoint and operated on the fringes of Islam, in the eyes of some they  represent all Muslims.  There has been a backlash of misguided ‘revenge attacks’ and statistics show there has been a huge increase in Islamophobic incidents. Faith Matters, an inter-faith charity which runs a helpline measuring anti-Muslim attacks (Tell MAMA), said they had received more than 210 calls in the past week, and there have been reports of mosques and Islamic centers being attacked. Right-wing organisations have responded aggressively  the English Volunteer Force (EVF) has declared Britain to be in a state of civil war with Islam, and within twenty-four hours of Lee Rigby’s murder the number of followers on the English Defence League’s (EDL) Facebook page tripled to over 75,000. On Saturday the EDL mobilised over a thousand supporters to demonstrate against “political Islam spreading across this country”, while the BNP’s Nick Griffin is leading a march in Woolwich next month to “demand the expulsion of hate preachers from the UK”.  Fiyaz Mughal, Director of Faith Matters told the BBC: “What’s really concerning is the spread of these incidents. They’re coming in from right across the country”. 

Despite the anger and violence experienced in the wake of the attack, a more positive consequence has also emerged; a tangible sense of community and solidarity. Most non-Muslims reject the radical interpretation of Islam portrayed by the right-wing and have taken a stand of solidarity with Muslims across the UK. Comparably, the majority of British Muslims have distanced themselves and their faith from the violent extremism displayed by Adebowale and Adebolajo. The response from the Muslim community has been overwhelmingly condemnatory of the atrocities committed by Adebowale and Adebolajo. Muslim councils and individuals have offered their collective sympathy to Lee Rigby's family and have tried to prove that contrary to the equation of Islam with terrorism, the extreme beliefs held by the two are anomalous, and violent fundamentalism is not reflective of Islam as a whole. Suhra Ahmed, of the Islamic Society of Britain declared Woolwich to be “a horrific, unforgivable attack, the kind that should be purged from our society.” Shaykh Ibrahim Mogra, Assistant Secretary-General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain, added: "The Muslim communities of Britain, like the rest of the country, are shocked and appalled by the horrific murder in Woolwich…The murderers chanted slogans during their heinous crime, claiming to do it in God's name - far from it…this is a betrayal of Islam”.  Ninety-four senior British Imams signed a letter condemning the Woolwich attack and around five thousand Muslims gathered at Morden mosque on Friday in support of the Rigby family and to denounce extremism. On the same day at the East London mosque in Tower Hamlets, leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Buddhist faiths joined around 6,000 Muslims for Friday prayers in an expression of solidarity. The Guardian reported that, “the group included the Bishop of Stepney, Adrian Newman, and Leon Silver from the East London central synagogue. Speaking before prayers started they said they had come to condemn the Woolwich attacks and show that the various faith communities were standing shoulder to shoulder with their Muslim neighbours”. 

I believe Lee Rigby’s murder is a turning point and once the knee-jerk reactions have subsided, how Britain responds in the long-term is how the country should be defined. Adebowale and Adebolajo tried to divide and conquer, and bring fear to the streets of London. They claimed their beliefs were representative of a true Islam and attempted to instigate a form of civil war between Muslims and non-Muslims by forcing the population to pick a side – ‘us versus them’.  Although a number of people have turned to the Right in the immediate aftermath, the majority has declared solidarity with the Muslim community and denounced the killing and ideology behind it. Contrary to Adebowale and Adebolajo’s belief, most people in Britain do not believe that British Forces posted in Iraq and Afghanistan are there to fight Islam, insomuch as non-Muslims are not at war with Muslims in the United Kingdom.  Lee Rigby’s murderers tried to create an ideological divide but it appears that the values that define the United Kingdom – democracy, freedom, and tolerance – won’t allow for such fear-mongering and extremist behaviour to segregate the country and demonise Islam. 

NB. As this article went to print, Michael Adebowale was released from hospital and taken to a London police station for questioning. In addition to being charged with Lee Rigby’s murder, he also faces charges of the attempted murder of a policeman. 

 NNB. You can donate to Help for Heroes here

[1] According to Reuters, “British police have foiled at least two major plots in which Islamic extremists were accused of planning to kill off-duty troops” in reaction to Britain’s Armed Forces’ presence in Islamic territories. 
[2] Despite what the media might suggest in the wake of Woolwich, lone-wolves are not an Islamic construct or unique to the religion. There are many examples of people from all faiths and nationalities committing independent crimes/acts of terrorism. Timothy McVeigh, a white Christian American, acted alone in one of the most infamous lone-wolf attacks when he bombed the Oklahoma Federal Building in 1995 and killed 168 people and injured hundreds more. Theodore Kaczynski, known as the "Unabomber” and Anders Breivik are also key examples of lone operatives.

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