The fight against fear
Could anything have been done to prevent the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last month? John Chisholm examines the nation’s response to the attack
The brutal murder of Lee Rigby, in broad daylight, by two men determined to kill, has understandably shocked the nation. Followed soon afterwards by what looks to have been a copycat attack in France, the incident unleashed a series of responses: some edifying, others less so. The killers indulged in an act of terror to try to make people afraid, and there are plenty of organisations and individuals who seem more than happy to stoke that fear in order to gain some advantage of their own.
By all accounts, Lee Rigby was a popular but fairly unremarkable soldier. Aged 25, with two children, he had served as a machine gunner in Afghanistan. His biography reads like those of hundreds of young men who have served with the British armed forces. Rigby was unlucky; any soldier would have satisfied the demand for revenge cried for by his two killers. In many ways, this makes the incident seem even more tragic. Rigby had probably come to terms with the risk of dying or being wounded on a tour of duty in Afghanistan; it’s a risk all soldiers accept. But he would not have anticipated being killed walking down the road in Woolwich.
Hit by a car and then brutally butchered, Rigby lay dead in the road while his two killers talked with passers-by, who had gathered in a curious gaggle, seemingly not understanding what had taken place. There were several women with children in the crowd, who can hardly have wanted to expose their offspring to the sight of a headless torso or a bloodstained fanatic. This was the stuff of nightmares. And that’s exactly what the two killers wanted to create: nightmarish terror. The films taken on mobiles were soon on the internet, uncontrollable and uncontrolled, streamed around the world to bring the incident and all its immediacy to the global public.
But although this was clearly a shocking crime, what is perhaps more remarkable is that incidents like this do not happen more often. The fact that they remain relatively rare demonstrates how severely the ability of terrorists to strike has been curtailed. Security services have been very successful in infiltrating cells, bugging conspirators and turning agents. Despite poor funding, this invisible line of defence has been extraordinarily effective in robbing terror groups of the ability to strike at the innocent.
They have, of course, been helped by what appears to be a startling level of incompetence among those who want to create terror. To take one case: the remote control car plot. In April, not long before Rigby’s murder, two men were convicted in Woolwich Crown Court of plotting to commit terrorist acts. They had planned to drive a remote control car under the gates of a Territorial Army base in Luton and explode a device carried by the car under a parked vehicle. The pair, Zahid Iqbal and Mohammed Sharfaraz Ahmed, had also discussed other potential targets but none appeared to be serious options. Indeed, the whole affair sounded fantastical from start to finish, with explosive recipes plucked from magazines to be concocted in the conspirators’ kitchen. What never seems to have struck the pair was that they might be under surveillance thanks to their visit to Pakistan in 2011 and their interest in potentially lethal literature. Also, although the prosecution produced an explosives specialist to announce that the recipe as it stood may have worked, the modifications the two conspirators were planning to make would have made the whole thing unviable.
Beyond the increasing capability of the security services, the security industry has also come up with an ever-expanding and increasingly bewildering array of technologies designed to make the budding terrorist’s life almost impossible. Governments have become far more willing to spend money on technology, which is visible to the taxpayer, than on clandestine operations, which are not. Many of these technologies have allowed governments to keep one step ahead, or indeed several.
In other words, it has become much more difficult to pull off a 9/11-style spectacular. The more complex the plan, the greater its chance of discovery. Hijacking aircraft does need complex planning, ever more so to thwart the new procedures and technologies in place. Having visited a training site in Pakistan places you front and centre on the list of people to keep a careful eye on. Agencies around the world share intelligence against what they see as a common enemy that is supra-national in ideology.
“Keep it simple, stupid.” That should be the new motto of every budding jihadist, certainly in the West. The Boston bombs were a case in point. The Tsarnaev brothers used pressure cooker bombs filled with nails, ball bearings and black powder, using an egg timer-style detonator. This is hardly rocket science: the instructions were clearly laid out in the article ‘Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom’ in Inspire magazine in the summer of 2010. In the US, getting hold of all of the ingredients for this recipe is very easy, black powder being found in shotgun cartridges. This was not a complicated attack, but it made headlines around the world. The attackers managed to kill three people and injure 264, and they did not even have to commit suicide in order to do it.
Woolwich was even more straightforward. No danger of anything failing to go off here. A car and some kitchenware, a total disdain for human life and a willingness to die for the cause were all that was needed. The result was significant. The attack itself was almost childlike in its simplicity. Here, there was no opportunity to infiltrate a cell, because there was not one to infiltrate. No chance of tracking purchases of incriminating chemicals, because there were none. Even the two suspects themselves, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, were fairly innocuous. Although some elements of the British press demanded to know how they had been allowed to conduct the attack as they had been “under surveillance for eight years”, as Stella Rimmington pointed out, to undertake round-the-clock surveillance on just one individual would take 18 or more people. There are certainly questions about Adebolajo’s curious release from Kenya in 2010, when he may have been on his way to Somalia, but neither he nor Adebowale were thought to be so dangerous that they were planning an attack. Someone, somewhere, has to make calls over intelligence.
The immediate aftermath, talking to the crowd, being filmed and then shot, was all part of the plan. The message was that anyone, in theory, could be run over by a car and have their head hacked off in the name of Allah, unless they were going to live as a hermit. The ubiquity of mobile phone cameras and the internet also played a role in the success of this attack, meaning that coverage could not be controlled by media management. The news spilled everywhere and there was no way it was going to be got back in the bottle. For the terrorists, this was a gift. No need for grainy videos in Afghan caves broadcast by obscure websites: YouTube offered automatic wide coverage and multiple camera angles.
After the dignity shown by the murdered man’s family, the general public displayed a measured response. They seem to have acknowledged the horror but then got on with their lives. Some organisations, however, saw a passing bandwagon and jumped on it, in the hope that fear could somehow be made to work to their advantage.
It would be remiss not to start with the English Defence League (EDL). Because the murdered man was a soldier on British soil, its members were able to wrap themselves in the Union Jack; and since the murderers were both Muslims, they could indulge in an outpouring of hatred against followers of that particular religion. Thankfully, as a political movement, the EDL is laughable. With no credible leadership figure and more skeletons in its closet than you would care to count, it is never going to capture any significant public support. What it does have, however, is the ability to cloak racist thuggery in English nationalism and Islamophobia. This endorses violence against the Muslim community, the vast majority of whom want nothing more than a quiet life. In York, for example, an EDL demonstration outside a mosque collapsed into farce as the Imam and his staff invited demonstrators inside to join them for that most English of institutions: tea.
The problem is that extremists on both sides have started to need each other. A group of four radical Islamists were recently convicted of plotting an attack on an EDL rally, while the EDL continues to foment violence against Muslim communities. In the immediate aftermath of the murder of Rigby, there were nine attacks on mosques, assaults, racial abuse and anti-Muslim graffiti. An improvised petrol bomb was thrown at a mosque in Milton Keynes during Friday prayers, while attacks were also reported in Gillingham, Braintree, Bolton and Cambridge.
Also less than edifying was the response of some government ministers and backbenchers of all stripes. The cry of “something must be done” echoed around Whitehall and Westminster, and the government dusted off the Communications Data Bill, widely derided as a “snooper’s charter” and blocked publicly by the Deputy Prime Minister as recently as 25 April. It has been asked, quite rightly, whether the bill would have made any difference to the Woolwich attack, and the majority answer is no. Nevertheless, not content with allowing a good crisis to go to waste, voices on both sides of the house have been vocal in calling for its reintroduction.
This proposed bill has already been savaged by two backbench committees and polls among the general public reject it wholesale. The major industry players have informed the government that they will not help in enforcing it, and even a watered down version being worked on in Whitehall looks doomed to failure. It is widely seen as a step too far. And in any case, it looks as though the government would have to do a deal with Labour in order to get it through Parliament, and without the endorsement of the Liberal Democrats it could not be presented as a government bill.
Attacks such as the Woolwich murder can only marginally be affected by technology. Short of placing everyone under surveillance who falls under the remotest suspicion, the state remains powerless to prevent similar atrocities. This is not an admission it would care to make, but it remains the case that the overstretched security services are going to struggle to contain similar threats. Although the government takes great pains to dismiss the “backdraft” theory of terrorism, these people are using foreign interventions to justify their attacks. We will not know whether this theory has any credence until the final British soldier leaves Afghanistan. And then what? Will the radicals use something else to justify attacking British citizens? Some will: those who loathe liberal democracy and think themselves morally superior. Some will not, as there will be no films or cries for revenge.
Ultimately, in cases such as these, it is the public, the voter, the man on the Clapham omnibus, who will make the difference. So far, the radicals of both sides have been shunned and the general public have shown consistent good sense. Governments may not like the idea of having to trust the good sense of their people, but in cases like the attack on Lee Rigby, they may just have to.
John Chisholm is intersec’s international affairs correspondent