Last Wednesday’s attack on a member of the British Armed Forces tells us everything we need to know about the state of al-Qaida inspired terrorism today: Unsophisticated and modest in scale – but also callous, brazen, and invested with profound political purpose.
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The most remarkable feature of the London attack is that it was clearly ideologically driven with a distinct political purpose. Unlike most jihadist attacks, there was no attempt to indiscriminately kill civilians.
Drummer Lee Rigby was instead targeted precisely because he was a soldier. Once the gruesome murder was over, his killers stood around almost nonchalantly, while onlookers spoke to them and took pictures. When the police arrived, both men then tried to attack them. In both cases the men were hoping to attack symbols of the state.
This is not the first time jihadists have attacked individuals because of their political sensitivity. Stephen Timms, a British Member of Parliament, was stabbed in 2010 by Roshanara Choudhary after she was radicalized by listening to the lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki on the internet. She had targeted him because of his support for the war in Iraq.
Jihadists have been forced to innovate. Despite recent events in London and Boston, it is a fact that Western intelligence agencies have become increasingly effective at detecting terrorist plots. They are much better equipped now to identify groups of radicals who try to acquire material for bombs. British police have consequently thwarted at least one major plot every year since 9/11.
Al-Qaida has said that it is no longer able to pull off major terrorist attacks like the Madrid railway bombings of 2004 or the 2005 London 7/7 bombings at the moment. It has told followers to think in smaller and simpler terms. This is where attacks such as one in Woolwich or the stabbing of MP Stephen Timms are so effective.
Choudhary did not succeed in her attempt to kill Timms, but the damage was done. Politicians were forced to review their security arrangements and the manner in which they interact with constituents. Choudhary also demonstrated the near impossibility of guarding against terrorist attacks which employ ordinary everyday items.
This tactical shift was first given expression by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which publishes Inspire Magazine. The magazine has quickly become one of the most significant terrorist manuals ever published by the group.
Specifically targeted at Muslims in the West, it is written in English and is extremely well produced. Moreover, each edition carries a section about "Open Source Jihad" which it defines as, "a resource manual for those who loathe the tyrants; includes bomb making techniques, security measures, guerrilla tactics, weapons training and all other jihad related activities."
The purpose of the Open Source Jihad section is to "allow Muslims to train at home instead of risking a dangerous travel abroad." Herein lies the resilience of the current jihadist threat. Al-Qaida is reeling after fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, while some of its most important leaders including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki have been killed. It is bruised – but it is far from beaten.
That much is clear from Wednesday’s terrorist attack in Woolwich. Michael Adebolajo demonstrated how young men in the West remain susceptible to Al-Qaida’s worldview. After murdering Rigby, he told bystanders that British troops should "leave our lands."
Yet, Adebolajo was born and raised in Britain, so what did he mean when speaking of "our lands?" It is clear that he had embraced the Islamist worldview that teaches that identity must be defined through the fraternity of faith, by identifying with other Muslims through the ummah [global Muslim community].
This is a view which divides the world into believers and non-believers, creating a binary distinction leading to separation and confrontation. In this world, the West is at war with Islam and persecutes Muslims.
The basic tenets of jihadist beliefs have not changed. What has changed is the tactics they use. We have taken big strides in the military campaign to defeat Al-Qaida. Its leadership is on the run, and the group is squeezed in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. But as the gruesome murder in Woolwich demonstrates, we still have a long way to go in the battle of ideas.
Shiraz Maher is a Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, at King's College London. Follow him on Twitter: @ShirazMaher