Woolwich attack: A new template

Woolwich attack scene Image copyright AP

Five things mark out the attack on Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale outside Woolwich army barracks in May 2013.


In the jargon used in counter-terrorism, the Woolwich attack was not "networked" - or rather, there was no need for a network. The perpetrators did not have to receive bomb-making training in Pakistan as the 7/7 ringleaders did, nor did they actually need any type of support group. Instead Michael Adebolajo described in court how he and his partner in crime Michael Adebowale had planned the act together, and said of al-Qaeda, "I've never met them but I love them".

This has many implications, but - critically - it means 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.

The two attackers had been "on the radar" of the intelligence services because of their association with militant protest 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.

A similar pattern showed itself in the murder of Mohammed Saleem, an 82-year-old stabbed when walking home from a mosque in Birmingham. Pavlo Lapshyn, a Ukrainian student, was found guilty in October of the murder and of planting three homemade bombs near mosques. Giving evidence, a senior police officer described Lapshyn as a "self-starter", with a racist ideology of white supremacy.


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 Fusilier Rigby's case the choice of victim, a member of the armed forces, might have caused anger or sorrow in the wider population but it did not make the public 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.


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 the Woolwich 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.

The implications, in terms of when and where people might choose to carry out future attacks, are disturbing, to say the least.

In court, the attackers had a further chance to disseminate the message that they were "soldiers of Allah", fighting a war. Attempts to prevent the proceedings being used as a soapbox of this kind were only partially successful.


Governments have become better at calibrating their response to these acts. 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.

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. But while leaders have learnt the value of restraint, their words alone cannot calm some of the fears and hatreds fanned by such an attack.

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.

In the UK, there were many examples of low level violence towards Muslims and mosques after Woolwich. While many 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, a graphic act of violence such as the murder of Fusilier Rigby can generate street violence.


Soon after the murder of Lee Rigby I wrote that it had more of the characteristics of a hate crime than of terrorism, as traditionally defined. One MP took issue with me, pointing out that the 2000 Terrorism Act defined terrorism as violence "for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause". It may be, though, that this legislation is too widely drawn since, by this yardstick, one could equally argue that Pavlo Lapshyn's murder of Mohammed Saleem or a homophobic murder fit the "terrorism" bill too.

What is it that leads to a consensus that one form of politically-motivated violence is terrorism or that the other is a hate crime? The fact that these killings are committed by self-starting, non-networked individuals is important. While they might identify with a movement - be it radical Islam or white supremacism - they are not part of a terrorist cell or command structure with a set of defined objectives.

By framing murder charges, officialdom may in some ways have denied an Adebolajo or a Lapshyn the chance that terrorism indictments might have given them to voice their political agendas in court. Could the justice system go even further to prevent such killers trying to justify their actions by political speeches in court?

Some opposed the granting of an open trial to Norwegian Anders Breivik who murdered 77 people in 2011 for fear that he would use it in an attempt to justify through racist ideology what he had done.

In the end the authorities decided that allowing him to use the court room as a soapbox was a lesser evil than having a closed trial, concealing the process of justice. But crimes of this kind pose a difficult quandary for politicians seeking to contain reactive or copy-cat hate crime.