Woolwich murder — the “why?” should be obvious

The bru­tal murder in Wool­wich last week of Drum­mer Lee Rigby rightly caused shock and out­rage. Inev­it­ably there has been a media feed­ing frenzy about “ter­ror­ist” attacks and home-grown rad­ic­al­isa­tion.  Brit­ish Prime Min­is­ter, Dav­id Camer­on, felt it neces­sary to fly back from a key meet­ing in France to head up the Brit­ish secur­ity response.

One slightly heart­en­ing piece of news to emerge from all the hor­ror is that the PM has stated, at least for now, that there will be no knee-jerk secur­ity crack-down in the wake of this killing.  Sure, secur­ity meas­ures have been ramped up around mil­it­ary bases in the UK, but cyn­ic­al calls from the securo­crats to rean­im­ate a pro­posed “snoop­ers’ charter”, aka the draft Com­mu­nic­a­tions Data Bill, have for now been dis­coun­ted. And rightly so — MI5 already has all the neces­sary powers to mon­it­or sus­pects.

How­ever, there does still seem to be a polit­ic­ally disin­genu­ous view about the motiv­a­tion behind this murder.  Yet the sus­pects them­selves made no secret of it — indeed they stayed at the scene of the crime for twenty minutes appar­ently encour­aging pho­tos and smart phone record­ings in order to get across their mes­sage.  When the police armed response team finally arrived, the sus­pects reportedly charged at the police bran­dish­ing knives and pos­sibly a gun.  They were shot, but not fatally.  This may have been attemp­ted “sui­cide by cop” — delayed until they had said their piece.

This does not strike me as the actions of “crazed killers” as has been repor­ted in the media; rather it reminds me of the cold and cal­cu­lated actions of Nor­we­gi­an mass mur­der­er, Anders Breivik. The Wool­wich murder was designed to max­im­ize the impact of the mes­sage in this social media age.

And the mes­sage being? Well, it was indeed cap­tured on smart phone and sent out to the world.  The killers clearly stated that this was a polit­ic­al action designed to high­light the grue­some viol­ence daily meted out across North Africa, the Middle East, and Cent­ral Asia as a res­ult of the west­ern policy of mil­it­ary inter­ven­tion­ism.

This mani­fests in a vari­ety of ways: viol­ent res­ist­ance and insur­gency against pup­pet gov­ern­ments as we see in Iraq; interne­cine civil war in coun­tries such as post-NATO inter­ven­tion Libya; cov­ert wars fought by west­ern prox­ies, as we see in Syr­ia; or overt attacks in Yemen, Somalia, Afgh­anistan and Pakistan, where US and UK con­trolled drones tar­get mil­it­ants named for assas­sin­a­tion on pres­id­en­tially-approved CIA kill lists with the res­ult­ing col­lat­er­al murder of com­munity gath­er­ings, chil­dren and wed­ding parties.

All this does not jus­ti­fy the appalling murder in Wool­wich, and the per­pet­rat­ors must face justice for the crime.  How­ever, it does go some way to explain­ing why such an atro­city occurred, and we as a soci­ety need to face up to the facts or this will hap­pen again.

Say­ing this does not make me an apo­lo­gist for ter­ror­ism, any more than it did journ­al­ist Glenn Gre­en­wald — a writer who has had the journ­al­ist­ic attack dogs unleashed on him for sim­il­ar views. Bey­ond the group-think deni­al­ism with­in the Wash­ing­ton Belt­way and the West­min­ster Vil­lage, the cause and effect are now widely-recog­nised. Indeed, in her 2010 testi­mony to the Chil­cot Inquiry about the Iraq War, former head of MI5 Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller said pre­cisely the same thing — and I don’t think any­one would dare to label her “an apo­lo­gist for ter­ror­ism”.

The seed of Islam­ic extrem­ism was planted by west­ern colo­ni­al­ism, propag­ated by the 1953 CIA and MI6 coup against Pres­id­ent Mossade­gh of Iran, watered by their sup­port for a fledging Al Qaeda in the 1980s Afghan res­ist­ance to the Soviet inva­sion, and is now flour­ish­ing as a means both of viol­ently attempt­ing to eject west­ern occupy­ing forces from Muslim coun­tries and gain­ing retri­bu­tion against the West.

We need to face up to this new real­ity. The bru­tal murder of this sol­dier may be a one-off attack, but I doubt it.  Indeed, sim­il­ar attacks against French sol­diers in Toulouse occurred last year, and this week­end there has already been what appears to be a copy-cat attack against a sol­dier in Par­is.

In this endem­ic sur­veil­lance soci­ety ter­ror­ist groups are all too aware of the vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies inher­ent in large-scale, co-ordin­ated attacks, the plan­ning of which can be picked up by sigint or from inter­net “chat­ter”. Much sim­pler to go for the low-tech atro­city and cyn­ic­ally play the all-per­vas­ive social media angle for max­im­um cov­er­age.

The UK media has repor­ted that the Wool­wich sus­pects have been on the Brit­ish intel­li­gence radar for the last 8 years, but MI5 failed to take prompt action. The inev­it­able gov­ern­ment enquiry has been prom­ised, but the fall-back defens­ive pos­i­tion, already being trot­ted out by former spies and ter­ror­ism experts across the media is that the secur­ity ser­vices are nev­er going to be in a pos­i­tion to accur­ately pre­dict when every rad­ic­al­ised per­son might “flip” into viol­ence and that such “lone wolf” attacks are the most dif­fi­cult to stop.

As more news emerges, this is look­ing increas­ingly disin­genu­ous. Reports have emerged that one of the sus­pects, Michael Ade­bolajo, was approached to work as an agent for MI5 half a year ago, appar­ently after he had been arres­ted and assaul­ted by police in Kenya. This may be anoth­er example of the secur­ity ser­vices’ failed Pre­vent ini­ti­at­ive that seems to be caus­ing more harm that good with­in the young Brit­ish Muslim com­munity.

This story has been com­poun­ded by the recent intriguing arrest of one of Ade­bola­jo’s friends, the self-styled Abu Nusay­bah, imme­di­ately after he had fin­ished record­ing an inter­view about this for the BBC’s News­night pro­gramme.  The Met­ro­pol­it­an Police Counter-Ter­ror­ism Com­mand swooped at the Beeb and arres­ted the man on ter­ror­ism charges: he has now dis­ap­peared into the maw of the leg­al sys­tem.

The only long-term and poten­tially effect­ive solu­tion is to address the fun­da­ment­al issues that lead to Islam­ic viol­ence and ter­ror­ism and begin nego­ti­ations. The UK, at least, has been through this pro­cess before dur­ing the 1990s, when it was attempt­ing to resolve the civil war in North­ern Ire­land. Indeed my former boss, Eliza Man­ning­ham-Buller, stated as much dur­ing a BBC lec­ture in 2011, say­ing that the US and UK gov­ern­ments need to nego­ti­ate with Al Qaeda to reach a polit­ic­al set­tle­ment.

Over the last 20 years, Al Qaeda has con­sist­ently deman­ded the remov­al of the west­ern (pre­dom­in­antly US) mil­it­ary pres­ence from the Middle East. Since the 9/11 attacks our polit­ic­al elites and media have equally con­sist­ently spun us the line that Al Qaeda car­ries out attacks because it “hates our way of life, hates our freedoms”.

Unless our gov­ern­ments acknow­ledge the prob­lems inher­ent in con­tin­ued and viol­ent west­ern inter­ven­tion­ism, unless they can accept that the war on ter­ror res­ults in rad­ic­al­isa­tion, “blow­back” and yet more inno­cent deaths, and until they admit that nego­ti­ation is the only viable long-term solu­tion, we are all con­demned to remain trapped in this ghastly cycle of viol­ence.

MI5 looking for a Needle in the Haystack

The Xmas Day “Al Qaeda” ter­ror attack on a transat­lantic flight bound for Detroit is an inter­est­ing one.  Awful for those on the flight, of course, and my heart goes out to them for the fear they must have exper­i­enced.

But which are the gov­ern­ments most staunch in their pro­sec­u­tion of the war on ter­ror?  Let’s call them the “Axis of Good”.….

The USA, the UK, and the Neth­er­lands.

So it must be just nuts to them that the imme­di­ately iden­ti­fi­able Al Qaeda ter­ror­ist is repor­ted to be a Nigeri­an-born UK engin­eer­ing stu­dent who is fly­ing via Schiphol air­port in NL to the USA.  Even bet­ter, he acquired his “bomb” in Yemen — inter­est­ingly, a coun­try that is under increas­ing assault by the US mil­it­ary at the moment. 

This ticks a num­ber of use­ful nation­al secur­ity boxes, remind­ing us what a threat our nations face. 

The alleged ter­ror­ist is repor­ted to have been on the watch list of the US secur­ity appar­at­us, but not on the “no fly” list — which is unveri­fi­able any­way, but reportedly con­tains the names of over a mil­lion people. So yet anoth­er break-down in this unwieldy secur­ity sys­tem.

Airport-securityWe already have a situ­ation where all cit­izens of the US, UK and NL are effect­ively treated like crim­in­als every time they take a plane, as well as every­one else attempt­ing to fly into these coun­tries.  How­ever, this incid­ent has demon­strated that the secur­ity around fly­ing is not just a slow irrit­ant — a “Big Broth­er Lite” with its stu­pid restric­tions around liquids, maquil­lage, shoes, belts and laptops — it has been dra­mat­ic­ally shown not to work.

Identi­fy­ing poten­tial ter­ror­ists is like look­ing for a needle in a hay­stack.  This has become an estab­lish­ment cliché these days: the ter­ror­ists have to be lucky only once, and the secur­ity ser­vices have to be con­stantly lucky to stop an attack.  The odds are acknow­ledged to be impossible. 

What used to be agreed with­in Brit­ish and oth­er European spook circles is the view that the best intel­li­gence comes from tricky-to-run human sources.  They may have their flaws, but they can occa­sion­ally provide pre­cise and lifesav­ing intel­li­gence. The US approach has long been dia­met­ric­ally opposed to this approach — instead they sit back and hoover up every scrap of inform­a­tion via data min­ing and hope to sieve some­thing out of it.  They then tend to respond with whizz-bang, hands-off gad­getry, much like a deadly video game.

So, that said, let’s make two guesses how this new attack will be inter­preted and used by our gov­ern­ments and secur­ity forces:

1) They admit that they need to reas­sess their approach to the “war on ter­ror”.

2) Focus on ever more dra­coni­an data min­ing meas­ures at the point of travel — wheth­er they work or not, wheth­er they slide us ever near­er a police-state or not — until we are effect­ively pris­on­ers in our own coun­tries. 

A dif­fi­cult pre­dic­tion for 2010. 

The final annoy­ance will, at least from a per­son­al per­spect­ive, be that they now ban the car­ry­ing of powders as well as liquids on board a flight.  If they stop me trav­el­ling with my Max Factor, that’s it.  Trains only in the future.

Happy New Year!