The brutal murder of Lee Rigby, a 25-year-old serving soldier in Woolwich on Wednesday, and the subsequent rally of 50 hooded men under the banner of the English Defence League (EDL) have highlighted the twin threats now facing the UK.
If Wednesday’s murder, as seems increasingly likely, transpires to be the first terror attack to scar the capital since 7/7, it marks a different type of horror than that which devastated the Tube and a bus eight years ago.
In the intervening years between 7/7 and the Woolwich attack the world has moved on; western operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – open wounds in the global conflict – have been scaled back, while western violence against extremism has spread outwards to North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where militants and civilians alike suffer under Obama’s expanded drone programme.
“Individualised Jihad” has become the fear for security services, highlighted by a number of thwarted attacks on the UK, and, more recently, a successful attack on the Boston Marathon.
According to Dr Christina Hellmich, a terrorism expert from the University of Reading, this notion of “individualised Jihad” is a product of the demise of al-Qaeda.
“As an organised international movement, it is a spent force,” she told the Huffington Post UK. “A seemingly random murder is truly horrific – but it is hardly the activity of an institution which wields genuine international power.”
Hellmich said this variation on tactics has its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, developed, she argued, as “a distraction against the fact that al-Qaeda was no longer an effective institution”.
Rather than calling for groups to unite and carry out attacks, the call is for individuals, wherever they are to take up arms against Western targets,” she said. This call for indiscriminate violence, Hellmich argued, is a new phenomenon, adopted around 2010 by Anwar Al-Awlaki (before his death) and his followers. As such, Hellmich placed Wednesday’s murder in a “similar family” to that of the Boston bombings rather than 7/7.
“The Woolwich attack most reminded me of the 2010 attack on Stephen Timms MP by Roshonara Choudhry,” Hellmich said.
Choudhry, it transpired, had been radicalised by online sermons and had no connections to existing radical groups. When asked about her motivation at her trial, the 21-year-old said that Timms had voted in favour of the Iraq War.
The targeting of soldiers rather than civilians marks a further evolution in extremist methodology, though as Raffaelle Pantucci points out in an article for the Royal United Services Institute, this is not the first time soldiers have been targeted. The academic cites Parviz Khan, who plotted to kidnap and behead a British soldier in Birmingham and Mohammed Merah, the French-Algerian who killed three soldiers before turning his gun on a Jewish school in Toulouse, as similar acts of terror, adding that there was no evidence that either Merah or Khan had been “tasked to do what they did” by an organisation or group.
The inevitability of a successful attack on the military is not lost on Joe Glenton, a former British soldier who served in Afghanistan and Africa, and a HuffPost UK blogger. “This type of attack has been planned at least twice and foiled before,” he told the HuffPost UK. “Targeting a soldier is a spectacular in one sense,” he said. “British troops will be very worried.”
The world has also altered politically and economically since 2007; Labour was in Downing Street, Bush was in the White House and the European Union was a bastion of economic and political solidarity. A year later and the world lay racked in turmoil as the worst financial crash since the Twenties blighted both Europe and America.
Since then, parties of the far right have enjoyed a surge in support as history’s all too familiar narrative – economic decline leading to an increase in political extremism – played out across countries and continents. Like the Tea Party in the US and Golden Dawn in Greece, Britain too suffered a resurgence in the political fringes, with the EDL gaining support on the streets and the UK Independence Party (Ukip) gaining traction at the ballot box.
Speaking to the HuffPost UK in March, MP Dianne Abbott said: “Whenever you have austerity and recession you have a rise in racism and fascism… you saw it in Germany in the 1930s and you’re seeing it across Europe now.”
Former London mayor Ken Livingstone offered a similar assessment: “If you look across Europe you will see an increase in parties of the right and of anti-immigrant sentiment.”
It is this increase in far-right activity, as highlighted by Wednesday’s EDL gathering in Woolwich, as well as an increase in passive support, that “must be nipped in the bud” said Glenton. “There is space in this country, because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where you can comfortably be anti-Muslim, and the EDL… have marched right in.
“There cannot be a blanket punishment for people who haven’t done anything just because these two guys [the alleged attackers] just happen to be Muslim.”
It’s a sentiment Hellmich echoes: “I see sporadic attacks ahead of us, rather than a wave… but these attacks have and will lead to an increase in anti-Islamic sentiment. It just adds fuel on the flame of those looking for a scapegoat.”
Another worry for Hellmich is seeing a similar response to Woolwich as in Boston, what she calls the “heavy militarisation of an entire city”.
In the wake of the Boston bombings, the city was placed in virtual lockdown as security services scoured the beleaguered city for the suspects.
“This was more threatening that the actual incident itself,” she said. “Thankfully we didn’t see that in the UK, but the incident was very different.”
Wednesday’s rally by the EDL was condemned by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) as the work of “fascist thugs trying to use the murder to whip up racism and direct hatred against all Muslims” and an attempt to start a “race riot”. Still, anecdotal evidence suggests that support for the group, particularly on social networks, swelled following the murder.
But herein is the problem facing the UK should more horrors unfold; individualised attacks, which are the work of lone men or unconnected groups, are difficult to stop and when they do succeed they play into the hands of the far-right, spoiling for a fight with an al-Qaeda nemesis that barely exists.
Countering these twin threats is the task facing not only the UK government but every citizen repulsed by the brutal murder of a 25-year-old serving soldier on a south London street.