Murder in Woolwich poses some questions for the ‘War on Terror’


Last Wednesday (May 22nd) around 2:20 pm, a young man was ambling down the John Wilson Street in Woolwich, London;  he was a few paces from the Queen Victoria pub, a short walk from the Royal Artillery barracks. He was distinguished from other pedestrians only by his ‘Help for Heroes’ T-shirt.

At that moment, a Vauxhall car swerved across and off the road, taking aim at him on the sidewalk. It crashed to a standstill against a signpost. Its two occupants got out and set about the young man with knives and a machete, almost decapitating him. Having killed him they dragged his body into the road for all to see.

Rather than fleeing like guilty men, they waited for the armed response team they knew were coming. In the meantime they talked to those few by-standers who ventured forth. One of the men, addressed an onlooker’s Blackberry phone-camera, telling the world what they had just done and why. This is part of what he said:

“The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers, and this British soldier is one, is a eye for a eye [sic.] and a tooth for a tooth.

By Allah, we swear by the Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone. So what if we want to live by the Sharia in Muslim lands. Why does that mean you must follow us and chase us and call us extremists and kill us? Rather you lot are extreme. You are the ones.

When you drop a bomb, do you think it hits one person or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family. This is the reality.

By Allah, if I saw your mother today with a buggy I would help her up the stairs. This is my nature. But we are forced by the Qur’an in Sura at-Tawba [Chapter 9 of the Qur’an], through many, many ayah [verses] throughout the Qur’an that [say] we must fight them as they fight us, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

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 governments. They don’t care about you. Do you think David Cameron is gonna get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think the politicians are going to die? No it’s going to be the average guy, like you, and your children.

So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so we can…, so you can all live in peace. Leave our lands and you will live in peace. That’s all I have to say. Allah’s peace and blessings be upon Muhammad, as-salamu alaykum.”

Some onlookers gathered around the scene in a silent circle. Some recorded what they saw on their phone-cameras. Others went about their business. Only a few tried to help the fallen man. Some of those talked to the men.

After 14 minutes, armed police arrived. As they were about to get out of their car, the two killers charged them with malicious intent, armed with gun, knife and machete, and were shot, although not fatally.

Within a matter of hours, video of one of the killers making his statement was provided to ITV News and broadcast unedited to the entire world on its 6:30 pm news bulletin and placed on its website here. [This video has now being edited. This is the original (made available by The United West, ‘Uniting Western Civilization for Freedom & Liberty’): [Don’t view it if you upset easily.]

It transpired that the young man was Lee Rigby, a 23 year old soldier, a member of the Royal Fusileers. Those accused of murdering him are Michael Adebolajo (27) and Michael Adevowale (22), both British citizens of Nigerian descent from respectable Christian families who converted to Islam.

There is the act, the murder. And there is the reaction to the act. Both illuminate life in England and the war on terror.

Terror is ‘extreme fear’ and fear is an emotion. It falls, therefore, within the parameters of this course and this blog.

For a short while, the authorities seemed at a loss as to how to respond. Should it be treated as a criminal or a terrorist act? This decision is crucial. Labeling it a criminal act depoliticizes it. Guilt would be decided by a court with a judge and jury. Publication of evidence would be banned for being being prejudicial and in contempt of that court. This was a serious option. Gruesome murders are not uncommon and motives are various. For all we know, these two characters could be mentally ill.

But the authorities decided that it was a terrorist act. Presumably they reasoned that the intent was to frighten the populace so as to shift the position of the government with regard to the war on terror. This designation changed everything. Terrorist acts are political and they are treated politically.

Duly classified, the ‘war on terror’ narrative descended on the event, cloaking it in meaning.  From all sides, we were told what the attack meant, how it must make us feel and what must have caused it.

The floodgates of speculation opened in news media. Newspapers vied with each other to say how utterly sickening and depraved it was and what must be done. ‘The Evil Face of Terror’. ‘Beheaded .. On a British Street. Ranting fanatic butchers solidier in Help for Heroes shirt’—Daily Mirror. Politicians lined up to morally elevate themselves by condemning the perpetrators. That this should happen here, on an English street.

Rigby, who had served one tour in Afghanistan, became a ‘hero’ overnight. Pictures suggest that he was a pleasant, harmless-looking young man. The very face of innocence. He was a ‘loving father’ to his two year old son. He was a ‘loyal husband’. It later emerged that he was separated from his wife and had a new fiancee. The two of them visited the crime scene together, their grief front page news. The murder site became a public shrine. Flowers adorned railings, reminiscent of those at Kensington Palace when Princess Diana died in a car crash. All and sundry came to pay their earnest respects to Digby.

But this was no ordinary terrorist act. Designating it so seems a high risk strategy, capable of back-firing.

In most cases of terrorism the perpetrators do not have the opportunity to explain themselves. Here they did. Never before has a terrorist testified directly before the public—before the soldier’s body was cold.

Never before has the public had the opportunity to directly evaluate the act and its perpetrators in the light of the war-on-terror narrative. When they do they may find that they do not fit the stereotypical terrorist profile. Consider:

  1. Adebolajo is ‘one of us’. He speaks with a London accent. He sounds just like other people living in Woolwich. He is not an outsider. He lives there.
  2. He may be a murderer, but he is well-mannered. ‘I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same.’
  3. The typical terrorist act targets innocent civilians. But Lee Rigby was a serving soldier and Adebolajo states that this is why he was targeted.
  4. There was certainly personal rancor towards Rigby, but they did not behave as if they were filled with hate towards anyone else. Those who talked to them described them as agitated but normal people. They did not threaten anyone one else. It was just the soldier and the police they wanted to harm.
  5. There was a degree of rationality in Adebolajo’s statement. He said the killing of Rigby was retribution of past killing of Muslims by British forces and a deterrent to future killings. In this sense, the stated motive was to stop the suffering of others, in ‘our land’. Adebolajo tells them that ‘you lot are extreme’.
  6. The best answer to acts of terrorism is not to be terrified, and the people of Woolwich who witnessed this were not. There was no ‘terror’ there. They went about their business. The video shows two women (one pushing a stroller) pushing past Adebolajo as he stands there with bloodied hands clutching a knife.
  7. Terrorists are, almost by definition cowardly, but Adebolajo and Adevowale engaged Rigby in face-to-face combat. It may not take courage to hack an unarmed man to death, but it takes something and there are better signs of cowardice. Nor did they flee to safety. They waited to engage the armed police, knowing they faced either death or life imprisonment.

Of course, none of this cuts any ice with the authorities in England. But sooner or later condemnation is going to have to give way to understanding and this murder poses some awkward questions to the terror narrative.

The war on terror narrative can explain the murder of Rigby only by denying the rationality of the attackers and by insisting that there was not a shred of validity to their claims—contrary, it must be said, to a lot of evidence. (See, for example, WikiLeaks war logs: British forces exposed over Afghan attacks, and Afghanistan war logs: Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation).

Adebolajo and Adevowale must have been ‘radicalized’—not by anything ‘we’ have done, but by hate-filled Islamic preachers. But this line of argument unintentionally relieves Adebolajo and Adevowale of moral responsibility (they were ‘led astray’) when, in fact, they explicitly embraced their responsibility.

Like it or not, they killed Digby as a political, not a criminal, act. Declaring it an act of terror confirms this. Treating it quietly as a criminal act would have countered this.

The reasons soldiers go to war are seldom the reasons wars are fought. Like most other soldiers, Digby’s reasons for going to war in Afghanistan were no doubt honourable. But he was killed as symbolic punishment for the reasons the war-on-terror is fought and these are far more dubious. Were they not so Western forces in Afghanistan would not go to such lengths to shape public perceptions back home. See, for example:

NATO Media Operations Centre: NATO in Afghanistan: Master Narrative, 6 Oct 2008, via Wikileaks

CIA report into shoring up Afghan war support in Western Europe, via Wikileaks

When drone operators in England and the United States kill suspected terrorists, and innocent civilians, in far off places, the location of the battlefield become problematic.

As in all wars, the war-on-terror works by deception and counter-deception, but on whom and by whom? All is not quite what it seems. Everything is refracted, as if by mirrors. Nation-states are not above using for political ends the fear they have declared war on.

There is a fine line between would-be terrorists and security forces. It seems that MI5 and MI6 tried to coerce Adebolajo into working for them, presumably as an informer. See the second part of this news report. and this interview with the BBC. Immediately the interview ended this man was arrested.

The murder of Rigby is caught in a Manichaeist dualism between good and evil. They are evil. We are good. How could they do this to us?!

For answers to this last question, look to critical terrorism studies, apparently one of the fastest growing academic areas.

There is one more fear to be confronted—the fear of asking questions about acts of terrorism and the war on terror. To seek to understand is not to condone or support and no one should be emotionally blackmailed or intimidated into thinking otherwise.

Think for yourself.

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