The gruesome murder of a British soldier in London by two British Muslim citizens of Nigerian origin, the first Islamist killing in Britain since suicide bombers killed 52 people in London in 2005, has revived the fear of the "lone wolf" jihadist threat in the Western world.
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The attackers shouted "Allahu akbar" and encouraged people to take pictures and videos of them. They murdered the soldier "because Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day" and they promised to "fight them as they fight us."
However, the arrest of another man and a woman on suspicion of conspiracy to murder, plus three further arrests on Saturday, raise the possibility that the attack was more than a "lone wolf" killing.
Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the radical Islamist organization al-Muhajiroun, a group banned under anti-terrorism laws in the U.K., says that he knows Michael Adebolajo, one of the attackers, who attended a number of the organization's demonstrations, lectures and activities. Choudary claimed that Adebolajo converted to Islam in 2003 but stopped attending meetings of Al-Muhajiroun and its successor organization two years ago.
Al-Muhajiroun praised the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., worked to convert British citizens and preached a chauvinistic and violent Islam. Choudary was secretly filmed by the U.K.'s Sun newspaper saying that Islam would overrun Europe, David Cameron and Barack Obama should be killed and maintained that Osama Bin Laden was his hero.
Omar Bakri Muhammad, a radical Muslim preacher in London expelled in 2005 for “glorifying terrorism,” has also noted that Adebolajo attended his London lectures in the early 2000s. Bakri, who left for Lebanon after the London bombings and has been refused permission to return by the U.K. government, "was very surprised to learn that Adebolajo is the suspect in the attack.” In the 1980s Bakri became the leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir (the Party of Liberation) and in 1996 he deserted the group and initiated al-Muhajiroun (The Immigrants), remaining its leader, or Amir, until 2003.
It should be noted that already in 2007, Parviz Khan was convicted of plotting to kidnap and behead "like a pig" a British Muslim soldier in Birmingham. He was radicalized in the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, where the radical preacher Abu Hamza al-Masri was the imam (he was extradited to the U.S. last year to face trial on terrorism charges), and during several trips to Pakistan.
The BBC’s Newsnight program reported that one of the suspects in the attack was arrested last year on his way to join Al Shabab in Somalia. Al Shabaab themselves linked the London attack to the Boston bombing and last year's gun attacks in the southern French city of Toulouse: "Toulouse, Boston, Woolwich ... Where next? You just have to grin and bear it, it's inevitable. A case of the chickens coming home to roost!" the rebels tweeted.
Indeed, the Boston Marathon bombing a month ago comes immediately to mind. But in that case there is most probably a larger plot. It is not yet clear what the older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev did during his six month trip to Dagestan in 2012 and what his mother's role was in the local contacts he had there with insurgent elements.
Police in Boston began also investigating if Tamerlan was involved in the unsolved murders of a close friend and two young Jews found with their throats slit inside a Waltham, Mass. apartment, their bodies sprinkled with marijuana. The killings took place on a symbolic date - the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
On May 22, 2012 Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen immigrant, was shot to death in Orlando, Florida after an altercation with an FBI agent who was questioning him about his ties to Tamerlan. The two trained together in martial arts and lived in the same Boston area. Officials said Todashev had confessed to the brutal Waltham murders, and he implicated Tamerlan in the killings.
In March, 2012, Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French Algerian, a petty criminal radicalized in prison, killed in cold blood three French soldiers of North African origin and four Jews in a school (a rabbi, his two children and another girl) in three attacks in Toulouse, France. He was killed after a siege of his apartment by the French police.
According to new information, Merah made some 2,000 phone calls during a period of several months in 2010-2011 to Algeria, Israel, Afghanistan and Iraq using cellphones belonging to relatives. He was involved in a network that extended to Pakistan and Afghanistan, countries that he had visited.
In October 2012, French police arrested 12 people in raids following an attack on a Jewish kosher grocery in the Paris suburb of Sarcelles in which one person was injured. The man who organized the attack, 33-year-old Jeremie Louis-Sidney, a recent French convert to Islam, was shot dead at his home in Strasbourg in an exchange of fire with the police. Bomb-making materials, anti-Semitic material and a list of Jewish organizations in the Paris region to be targeted by the cell were found during the raids.
Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the cell was "probably the most dangerous" France had seen since the Algerian-based Groupe Arme Islamique (Armed Islamic Group) carried out a series of attacks in 1995-96.
Indeed, this comparison with terrorist attacks of two decades ago can help illustrate the current trends in Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe. In early 1994, the GIA published a virulently anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist manifesto in Sweden, where it had its headquarters at the time, accusing the Jews and Zionists of responsibility for the tragic situation in Algeria. At the time there were only 30–40 Jews living in Algeria. GIA attempted to bomb a synagogue in Lyons, France, on 24 December 1994. French Police made no effort to discover the perpetrators of the failed attack.
GIA car bombed a Jewish school again in Lyons in September 1995, injuring 14 people, and then conducted five bombings in France between July 11 and October 17, 1995, which resulted in eight dead and 250 injured. Part of the money used to finance the bombings came from people connected to the Brandbergen Mosque in Haninge, Sweden, the GIA’s ‘home’ state.
For many years London was known colloquially to both European anti-terrorism experts as well as to Islamists leaders as “Londonistan,” as it gave them free space to preach their hateful radical ideology. Even the 9/11 attacks did not change the situation. Only the 2005 attacks on the London underground and bus network provoked a change in the British security and law enforcement authorities' approach to the Islamist threat.
It seems that Western democratic governments have not yet realized that the complete freedom of speech, propaganda and organization offered to radical Islamist religious and political leaders who actively support violence is more dangerous than "lone wolves" or Internet manuals.
Anjem Choudary, who refused to apologize for any role that he played in converting Adebolajo to extreme views, is an example of this danger. Choudary has not been prosecuted for urging his followers to claim what he called "Jihad Seeker's Allowance" - i.e. state benefits - from the U.K. government and with them to pursue holy war.
The radical Jordanian-Palestinian Islamist cleric Abu Qatada al-Filistini (Omar Mahmoud Othman), considered by Spanish prosecutors "the spiritual leader" of al-Qaida in Europe, the GIA and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, an individual who has been repeatedly detained in Britain as an international terror suspect and threat to national security over the past 12 years, has not yet been extradited to Jordan.
The security and law enforcement agencies seem to be overwhelmed by the large numbers of potential suspect terrorists they have to monitor and too cautious in their preventive operations, possibly because of a lack of resources and of clear political backing.
The events in Europe and the U.S. demonstrate once again that anti-Semitic attacks are often the harbingers of wider terror. There is a salient pattern of minor plots or attacks, whether foiled or not, against Jewish targets acting as the precursor for major terrorist plots against Western, Christian, moderate Muslim or other targets.
Ely Karmon is the Senior Research Scholar at the Institute for Counter-Terrorism at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya. He is also the Senior Research Fellow at The Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC.