Experts seek clues in London 'lone wolf’ attack
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Counter-terror experts are studying footage of two assailants who hacked a man to death in London for clues about their profiles. The brutal attack bears the hallmarks of the sort of lone-wolf assaults jihadist groups have been encouraging.
A day after two men hacked a British soldier to death in broad daylight in a London neighbourhood, international attention on Thursday shifted to the profile of the attackers and the possible counter-terror lessons to be learned from the horrific assault.
The soldier killed in the attack has been named as Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. Drummer Rigby, 25, from Manchester, leaves behind a 2-year-old son.
British police investigating the brutal murder of a soldier by suspected Islamists in London said on Thursday they had arrested two alleged conspirators.
A man and a woman, both 29, were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to murder and are in custody at a police station in the south of the capital, a Scotland Yard statement said.
As British counter-terrorism police began investigations, few official details of the murderers were available. Police shot the suspects while trying to arrest them on Wednesday and the two wounded men were taken into custody, but officials have so far not identified them.
While security officials have so far not named the suspects, British media reports identified one of the men as Michael Adebolajo.
According to the British TV station, Sky News, Adebolajo is a 28-year-old Briton of Nigerian descent who was born in the Lambeth district of the British capital and grew up in east London.
Few details were available of the other suspect.
But in video clips filmed by onlookers in the southeast London neighbourhood of Woolwich, the two attackers provided a few clues, which are being closely examined by investigators.
Standing on a sidewalk and gesticulating to a camera with bloodied hands, a young black man used the sort of rhetoric familiar on jihadist propaganda messages.
"We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you,” said the man, dressed in dark jeans, a parka and a woolen skullcap. “The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day," he added.
The chilling scene, which unfolded on John Wilson Street outside the Royal Artillery barracks in Woolwich on Wednesday afternoon, was witnessed by horrified onlookers.
In an interview with the British ITV station, a man who filmed the attack on his mobile phone – who declined to be identified – said the assailants encouraged him to tape them.
The urge to be seen as conducting a violent act is consistent with the behavior of what renowned French scholar of Islam Gilles Kepel calls “third generation” terrorist attacks, said Pierre Conesa, former French defence ministry official and professor at the Paris-based Sciences Po university.
“This means there are more lone people who commit violence and put it on the Internet. The important point of the attack is not the dead people, it’s the image,” said Conesa in an interview with FRANCE 24. “That’s why this guy was exposing his (bloodied) hands and his knife and his weapons in the video.”
‘A kind of DIY, home-planned’ attack
In an interview with FRANCE 24 shortly after the news broke on Wednesday, Ghaffar Hussain, a counter-terror expert at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, said the attackers’ discourse sounded like classic al Qaeda rhetoric. “It appears to be motivated, from what I’ve seen and heard, by individuals who subscribe to a kind of global al Qaeda brand,” he said.
But Hussain was quick to cast doubts on whether the attack might have been masterminded or planned by an organized group or terror cell.
“I’d be very surprised if it was an attack that had foreign elements or any kind of foreign terrorist group involved,” said Hussain. “It seems more like a kind of DIY, home-planned, more random attack. But certainly by individuals who are influenced by the kind of narrative that inspires more organized attacks.”
Just over a month after the Boston Marathon attacks, Britain is also confronting the very real threat of the sort of lone-wolf, self-motivated attack that counter-terror experts have been warning of in recent years.
“In some respects, it’s more disturbing,” said Hussain, noting that al Qaeda’s Yemen-based branch – called Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula – had been encouraging such attacks for a number of years. “They know it’s much easier for a small group of people without any sophisticated chemicals or explosives to just go out into the street with knives and attack people randomly.”
‘In our lands, our women have to see the same thing’
While British authorities did not immediately reveal the identities of the two attackers, experts will be parsing the text and accents of the men over the next few days.
One of the notable features of the footage was that the two men had British accents. “It’s a very strong London accent, even a south London accent, in fact,” said Hussain. “From what I’ve picked up from people who know him (one of the attackers) on Twitter, he’s a British-born individual of Christian African origin who converted to Islam at one stage in his life and who made himself a mujahid or holy warrior.”
Earlier Thursday, a Reuters report quoting two anonymous sources with knowledge of the investigation said officials were investigating a Nigerian link, but the report provided no further details about the nature of the link.
Nigerian authorities are currently conducting a massive military operation against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria amid fears that the group’s influence could spread across the region.
In the footage of Thursday’s London attack, one of the attackers said, “I apologise that women had to witness that, but in our lands our women have to see the same thing. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you."
But it was not clear if the attacker was referring to one specific Muslim country or the more generic “bilad al-Islam,” which is the Arabic term for Muslim lands that jihadists believe are oppressed by the West.
Security tightened, but will long-term lessons be learned?
The morning after the gruesome attack, security was tightened at the sprawling Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, an area with historic links to the military.
According to Sky News, military commanders have told troops not to wear their uniforms until further notice.
Responding to the attacks on Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said the UK “will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms."
Speaking outside his Downing Street office, Cameron said, "This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act."
Some counter-terror experts, who have long warned of the growing radicalisation of pockets of Britain’s Muslim youth, however believe the authorities need to do more to thwart the source of such threats.
“People are radicalising on the Internet,” said Conesa, “and it’s very difficult to prevent this kind of attack mainly because these are individual decisions. We have to implement de-radicalisation programmes, which we don’t do today,” he added, referring to the official programmes that have been implemented in a number of Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“We just have a passive attitude regarding this kind of mobilisation,” he noted. “We’re just putting them in jail – and that’s not enough.”