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Woolwich attack: security forces will look at lone wolf and jihadist theories
Thursday, May 23, 2013
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Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre will convene, in wake of killing and al-Qaida martyrdom video rhetoric heard on London street.
Counter-terrorism officers and security officials will doubtless fear that Woolwich fits into the category of crime that they can do little to thwart; random, lone-wolf, unsophisticated attacks, conducted by people who are not on the radar of the police or MI5.
The spectrum in which investigators will be working now is broad, and the characters within it unstable and unpredictable.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack in south London, detectives might have been reluctant to tell the home secretary, Theresa May, conclusively that this was the work of jihadists, but as the hours passed any doubts must have evaporated.
The language attributed to one of the men filmed at the scene, and brandishing a bloodied knife, was stark: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We must fight them.
"I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you."
This is classic al-Qaida rhetoric, similar to the phrases used by suicide bombers who have left martyrdom videos. Though the man did not appear to mention Afghanistan, this is the only country in which British soldiers are now directly embroiled in a conflict.
More than 440 soldiers have been killed in the 12-year war in Afghanistan, including some shot by members of the Afghan security forces they are supposed to be supporting. British and Nato involvement in the fight against the Taliban is winding down, but the UK will still have a presence there until the end of next year.
The decision last night to convene Cobra, the Cabinet Office committee that deals with security emergencies, came after the home secretary took soundings from the new head of MI5, Andrew Parker, and the Scotland Yard commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe.
The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), which includes members from MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the police and Ministry of Defence, will convene to decide what conclusions can be drawn from what has happened, even at this early stage.
Crucially, JTAC will recommend whether to alter the national threat assessment level, which now stands at "substantial".
If there is any suggestion that this attack might be the start of a wave, the threat level will be increased to either severe or the highest level, critical.MI5 and Scotland Yard have warned repeatedly in recent years about self-starters – people who have been radicalised in the UK, affected, perhaps, by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or by Arab spring events, or by emerging al-Qaida networks in Africa.
Hundreds of Britons are known to have gone to Syria over the last two years to support the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian conflict is now the "jihadist destination of choice", according to Whitehall officials. Britons are also known to have been involved with the al-Nusra front, which is heavily infused with al-Qaida elements from Iraq and has been designated a terrorist group by the US.
Some of those people going abroad from the UK were already known to MI5 and MI6; some have now returned home. Many others will have come and gone without investigators knowing.
The same thing has happened in Somalia, where a smaller number of Britons have been in recent years, to support the al-Qaida affiliate al-Shabaab.
"What they do when they come back here is more worrying to us than what they do when they are out there," is how one official put it.
Even if those responsible for the Woolwich attack had not been abroad, they could have been motivated closer to home or online.
Security officials have highlighted the dangers posed by the al-Qaida online magazine, Inspire, which is constantly urging its readers to undertake attacks, rather than wait for training or orders from above.
Inspire, which is the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsular (AQAP), has been causing concern since it was first published in 2010; the latest edition has just been published and is said to include an "Open Source Jihad (OSJ) section … for aspiring jihadists seeking to assassinate US and European leaders".
Though some academics have doubted whether Inspire is such a powerful tool, there is evidence that people inclined to commit violence have been tipped into action by such entreaties.
Some of the biggest counter terror operations of recent years have involved suspects who have turned by Inspire.
Three men from Birmingham were convicted this year of plotting the biggest potential terrorist atrocity than the 7 July attacks. They had read the magazine and been influenced by the preachings of Anwar al Awlaki, the now dead former AQAP leader.
Attempts have been made to shut down the magazine, and to disrupt it by cyber warfare. Two years ago MI6 and GCHQ hacked into an article which set out how to make a bomb, and replaced the recipe with one for cupcakes. However, the magazine is still disseminated via internet forums.
Other extremists who have used Awlaki as motivation to mount terror attacks in the UK include Roshonara Choudhry, who attacked the Labour MP Stephen Timms in his constituency surgery.
Choudry, who was jailed for life in 2010, is also said to have named a US-based website as a source of inspiration. In 2007 a group of extremists in Birmingham plotted to behead a British Muslim soldier to undermine the morale of the British army and inhibit its recruitment of Muslims. The leader, Parviz Khan, admitted the plot and was sentenced to life imprisonment, to serve at least 14 years.
Though the number of people arrested for terrorist offences have fallen in recent years, the police and MI5 still make arrests, and still uncover plots. "They haven't given up," an official said.
Last year, the Royal United Services Institute [RUSI] thinktank published a report which set out the difficulties now facing counter-terrorism officers; with al-Qaida fragmented and "franchised" across the Arab world and in Africa, identifying suspects was seen as harder than ever.
The report warned: "Though the death of Bin Laden began a succession of counter-terrorist victories in 2011, the threat from Jihadist terrorism has not diminished. If anything, the risk has evolved from plots carried out by organised cells within a leadership structure, to one carried out by lone wolves, radicalised by material on the internet.
"The latter is harder to track down and is potent given the uncertain international situation; where the outcome of the Arab spring has not been settled, and where there are frequent returns of British citizens from war zones such as Somalia and Yemen."
The institute noted the arrival home of self-radicalised fighters would coincide with the steady release from prison of people convicted of terrorist offences in Britain over the last decade. It says their sentences, for good legal reasons, typically have not been very long.
Michael Clarke, the director of RUSI, said: "More experienced lone-wolf terrorists are likely to be returning to Britain in the next couple of years, not from training camps in Pakistan and via airports in Karachi and Dubai, but from wars in Somalia, Yemen, or Nigeria, from the renewed violence in Iraq, and from destinations and via routes that will be far more difficult for security services to monitor."
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