Woolwich attack: A new template
Five things mark out Wednesday's attack in south-east London in which a serving soldier was hacked to death by two assailants outside of an army barracks:
1) ATTACK NOT NETWORKED
In the jargon on counter-terrorism this attack was not "networked", or rather there is no need for a network in this type of event. The perpetrators do not have to receive bomb-making training in Pakistan as the 7/7 ringleaders did, nor do they actually need any type of support group.
This has many implications, but critically, that the scope for the intelligence agencies to detect and thwart such an attack in advance is very limited since the agents they have in jihadi groups or the interception of communications they have in place are unlikely to pick anything up.
There is already speculation that the two men responsible for Wednesday's attack were "on the radar" because of their association with militant groups, but the number of people who fall into this broadly drawn category is so large they cannot all possibly be kept under surveillance.
Also, since perpetrating a crime with knives and a car requires so little preparation or support, the idea that anyone in a wider network might get wind of the time and place of their proposed attack is remote.
2) 'TERROR' EFFECT COMES FROM PERPETRATORS NOT THE VICTIM
Terrorism is a hotly debated and indeed politically loaded concept. Personally, I have always preferred to use it to describe a tactic rather than as a term of moral opprobrium: critically it is the harming of random victims in order to spread fear in the wider population or highlight a cause.
In this case the choice of victim, a member of the armed forces, might cause anger or sorrow in the wider population but it is unlikely to make them feel personally threatened in the way that mass casualty attack, for example on commuters as in 7/7 did. After that day, everyone sat a little more nervously on the London Underground - at least for a time.
The thing that causes wider fear in this case is the fact that the alleged perpetrators look just like the young men you might see any day on British streets and that the weapons used in their attack are items available to anybody.
3) IMPOSSIBLE TO STOP MESSAGE SPREADING
With modern phone technology there is no way to stop the attackers getting their message out if they strike on a busy street. In the past, even with recent trials, the making of a "martyrdom video" was seen as a key part of the process of preparing an act of terror and spreading its effect.
Think back also to the early days after 9/11 when the issue of whether a particular media outlet, such as al Jazeera, transmitted such messages from al-Qaeda leaders became a hotly contested political and diplomatic topic. Members of that particular media network even felt it caused them to be targeted by the US military.
With Wednesday's attack, the two alleged perpetrators engaged with passers-by to explain what they had done and once the messages "went viral" by text, video, and Twitter, there was no way to stop them.
An attempt, for example, at complete media censorship of the man with blood stained hands haranguing the unseen holder of a mobile phone with his jihadist "eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth" message would have been totally ineffective.
The implications, in terms of when and where people might chose to carry out future attacks are disturbing, to say the least.
4) GOVERNMENT AND PUBLIC RESPONSES HAVE CHANGED
Governments have become better at calibrating their response to these acts and so has the public. After Boston and Woolwich, for example, they were careful not to leap to conclusions or to issue responses of the "War on Terror" kind that would have inflamed communal tensions.
There are still some who are defaulting to stereotypical responses to such situations, and certainly in Boston after the marathon bombings, I witnessed a small quantum of media-fanned hysteria, but in general people have become better at accepting that such incidents are a melancholy part of modern life and should not alter their view of other cultures or religions.
In time, prime ministers or presidents may even decide not to alter their normal working schedule in response to such events in order to deny them part of their intended effect.
5) HAS CHARACTERISTICS OF A HATE CRIME
Wednesday's act has more of the characteristics of a hate crime than of terrorism, traditionally defined. This may be seen not only through the observations that I have already noted about the choice of victim or the everyday nature of the perpetrators, but also in the possible communal effects of Woolwich.
If members of the English Defence League or less well categorised racist elements chose to throw bottles at the police or attack mosques then the real dangers in this event may prove to be those of inter-communal tension.
The 2005 events in London - both the 7/7 tube bombing and the 21/7 attempt to repeat it - generated little of this kind of aggravation.