President Obama’s speech, announcing his intent to reign in America’s global war on terror is playing out with a certain grisly irony here in England, a country reeling from the latest terrorist act.
The media here is filled with ghastly images of a man, clad in a jacket and woolen cap, glaring at the camera, a knife and meat cleaver in his bloody hand—just after he and his partner hacked to death and tried to behead a young British soldier in Woolwich in southeast London two days ago.
What is particularly alarming is the similarity of these two newest terrorist murderers in the name of Islam to the two brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon last month, to the 23 year-old son of Algerian immigrants, who shot down seven people in France a little more than a year ago.
In England, as in the earlier attacks in the U.S. and France, the terrorist killings provoked a wave of horror and outrage across the country. Islamic leaders denied such dastardly deeds had anything to do with the true faith. The murders were condemned as the totally senseless, cowardly act of unhinged killers, their minds deranged by radical Islamist claptrap.
“Britain will never buckle,” said Prime Minister David Cameron. “The terrorists will never win because they can never beat the values we hold dear.”
In fact, however, as one of the two killers in Woolwich talked to a horrified onlooker before the police arrived, in his own mind, at least, their actions were quite rational. They were in retaliation for Britain’s participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you until you leave us alone.” the man with the meat cleaver said. “Your people will never be safe. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying by British soldiers everyday. We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this today but in our lands our women have to see the same.”
He went on, “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, kill us?”
“Rather, your lot are extreme. You are the ones. When you drop a bomb, do you think it picks on a person? Or rather your bomb wipes out a whole family?’
The investigation in London is just getting underway, but there is no evidence that the two men of Nigerian parents were part of al-Qaeda or any sophisticated terrorist network. One of them had converted from Christianity to Islam, but they were what the British authorities call “self-starters,”a potentially far more dangerous threat to Britain and the West than al-Qaeda itself.
They were almost certainly swayed by radical Islamic clerics in England or via the Internet, such as the fiery English-language sermons delivered by Anwar al-Alwaki, an Al Qaeda preacher based in Yemen. An American citizen, he was killed in a drone strike in 2011. But the West’s dilemma is that his call for wannabe jihadis to launch whatever bloody attacks they can conjure, echoes on—as does the motto “Just Do It.”
That’s also the story behind the bombings at the Boston Marathon, perpetrated by the two young Tsarnaev brothers, immigrants from the restless Muslim nation of Chechnya. Here again, there is yet no evidence that they received any serious terrorist training or were acting as agents of any sophisticated network. Like the two men in Woolwich, they were freelancers–carrying out their own murderous schemes, inspired by nationalist cum religious sentiments, abetted by on-line instructions about bomb-making.
Their motives? The surviving brother, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was determined to make them clear. As he lay bleeding from his wounds, hidden from the police inside a boat in the back yard of a Charleston home, he wrote a message on the interior wall of the cabin.
The note said the bombings were in retaliation for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Iraq, and called the Boston victims “collateral damage” in the same way innocent victims have been in the American-led wars. “When you attack one Muslim, you attack all Muslims,” Tsarnaev wrote.
Again, in March 2013, France was traumatized by the murderous outburst of another young Muslim in Toulouse. Mohammed Merah, 23, first gunned down three French soldiers—one of them Muslim—then three days later he methodically shot four more people—a rabbi and three students at a nearby Jewish School.
He attacked the military base, Merah later told police, because of France’s involvement in Afghanistan; and the Jewish school because “The Jews kill our brothers and sisters in Palestine.” He was also outraged, he said, by France’s ban of the full veil.
As in Woolwich and Boston, the immediate suspicion that Merah was somehow linked to al-Qaeda; but it turned out that it wasn’t. As I blogged at the time, Merah had been to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there was no evidence that this former petty criminal was part of any serious terrorist network.
That being the case, how on earth can the authorities in the U.S. and Europe deal with the threat of such “Just-Do-It” jihadis?
Since 2005, for instance, British security services have prevented more than a dozen terrorist plots on British soil, including a scheme to blow up airliners with liquid-based bombs, to targeting shopping centers and nightclubs with fertilizer-based explosives, to taking out the London stock exchange. But the two Woolwich killers slipped through.
This, despite the fact that, according to reports here, both of them had been on an MI-5 watch list. One had apparently been arrested while attempting to travel to Somalia to join a radical Islamic group.
But after that, what should the authorities have done? Hold him for life? Let him go but keep him under constant surveillance? With some 2.5 million people of Muslim descent in England? Many of them unemployed, alienated from their government and its tendency to follow the lead of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Middle East. How do you keep a handle on them all?
French authorities also singled out Mohammed Merah for special attention after his trips to Pakistan and Afghanistan. But Merah shared space on that watch-list with some 600 other radicals from right to left just in the Toulouse area alone. Don’t forget, there are more than five million people of Muslim descent in France, many of them also bitter, unemployed, poorly housed.
French authorities have also foiled terrorist plots over the past few years, but there is no way they could have predicted that a young man like Mohammed Merah, who first turned to Salafism in a French prison, would migrate from radical “attitude” into full-blown terrorism. Indeed, apparently before he set out to avenge his Moslem brothers for France’s military role in Afghanistan, Merah had earlier tried to enlist in the French army, presumably to go to Afghanistan to fight against Islamic radicals.
Thus, there are certainly other precipitating factors—apart from ideology alone–that transform young men and women into terrorists. The elder Tsarnaev brother in Boston, for instance, had been a promising amateur boxer. He was apparently radicalized when the people running the Golden Gloves championships restricted admission to American citizens only. That decision meant the end to Tsarnaev’s boxing career and turned him towards religious extremism.
But, the only real common ground among the terrorist killers have been the statements they’ve issued themselves: Their bloody actions, they’ve all claimed, are retribution for the policies of the U.S. and its allies in the Middle East and Central Asia, the lurid pictures of collateral damage from Drone strikes, and the continued shame of Guantanamo.
Ironically, all those actions were supposedly undertaken to make the U.S. and its allies safe from terrorism.
Will the apparent shift in America’s policy announced by President Obama change that fatal dynamic? It depends on whether or not he now backs up his high-flying rhetoric with concrete action.