Tentative thoughts on Woolwich Attack

The events in Woolwich were horrifying for all those present either immediately at the scene or vicariously through media reports. A murder in broad daylight with such intensity and ferocity is rare in the UK.  Beyond the horror of a murdered life, the attack in Woolwich raises some deep, and troubling, questions for the United Kingdom.  In this post, I can only look at some of the surface issues that show the deeper issues.  Three areas will be considered. The first part looks at the political context for the attack.  The second looks at the media reaction to it.  The third section looks at the security service role in preventing such atrocities.

Political Context: War is politics by other means[i]

The murder is disturbing for its publicity as well as its apparent political purpose. Some commentators have focused on the religious statements by the perpetrators. Yet, the attack seems to be motivated by a political objective. According to the statements recorded by witnesses, the attack appears to be in response to the war the UK and the West; more generally, are fighting in Afghanistan.

What the attackers have done is raise awareness of the war being fought in Afghanistan and beyond can be brought to the UK. They have made a political statement through this act. However, if they have opened up a new front in this war, then there are serious security, and political questions to answer.  We will have to wait for the official inquiry before we can be certain of whether the attack is directly connected to overseas operations or whether it is simply a convenient cover and justification for the attack.

What could also be happening is similar to the 1997 massacre at the Luxor Temple where the attackers were deliberately targeting tourists in Egypt to weaken the government. They succeeded in damaging the tourism industry but failed to topple the government and ultimately undermined their own cause as the public turned against them. The similarity may be that the attackers have chosen a soldier, rather than a civilian, to maintain the cover of a “war” but also to bring home the vulnerability of soldiers even while at home.  The focus may be on low level, one off attacks that are harder to deter and detect than large-scale systemic attacks, of which the IRA was prolific in their attempts.

If the attack was aimed at bring the war to the UK, we have to consider what that means practically, see the last section, but also politically.  The attack will have an effect on the political calculus within the country. We hear statements that this is a terrorist attack. Yet, if the attackers see themselves as enemy combatants, are we entering new phase? Is it for the UK to define it as terrorism as it did with the IRA, refusing to see them as enemy combatants, or is it that a state of war cannot exist if the opponent is not a state? If the state system, which defines the terms of war and its context, is under threat, does such an attack suggest a harbinger of things to come?

Famous for fifteen minutes or a date that will live in infamy?

In any terrorist attack, the attacker wants to achieve maximum media exposure to gain attention for their deeds. They may not want to highlight their cause so much as to gain attention to magnify and multiply the effect of their attack.  In this regard, their attack succeeded. The images and statements recorded on the scene went viral on the internet with images on twitter, facebook, and associated media sites.

The media issues, though, are more than what the attacker wants to achieve.  We have to consider how our media outlets and our society make us particularly vulnerable to such media events.  As a television and internet culture, we have a response to the new, the immediate, and the impact.  The internet age is not one of subtlety, the sublime or the intellectual.  We are constantly bombarded with pictures, videos, and messages of the most outrageous content with each one seeking to exceed the next in the demand for attention.   The visual content takes precedence over any written content. Image replaces thought. Feeling replaces reason.  The passions replace intellect.  In this context, the attacks were tailor made to play towards our appetites.

At a deeper level, though, the media response to the attack showed how the media establishment is structured to respond. We immediately heard that the attackers were of Muslim appearance.  We heard background briefings from unnamed Whitehall sources stating that the attackers had shouted Allah Akbar. What we saw was a political-media establishment nearly rehearsing the same approach to the John Charles De Menezes case[ii], albeit with a different take on events.  Unlike the De Menezes case where the police were potential culpable for a mistake, the Woolwich event needed no political spin. With raw footage from the scene going live on the air and across the world, why was there a need to make that background briefing?  Why was the Whitehall source so keen to brief the press that the attacker had said Allah Akbar?  What was to be gained by it?

How safe are we if the guardians know everything but cannot act in time

The security service questions pose the most troubling question.  Reports on the following day suggested that the two perpetrators were known to the security services.  Here we see other issues that need to be considered, especially after the 7 July 2005 attacks because the security services missed important opportunities.

If the attackers were known to the security services, what was their last involvement? Here we need to look at the CCTV and the phone logs of the attackers as well as the traffic cameras that would have logged and tracked the killer’s car.  What were the killers’ movements leading up to the attack? What, if anything, do these tell us about the build up to the attack?

What do we know of the reasons for the attack? Was the soldier chosen at random, among soldiers, or was he targeted? If soldiers are being targeted, are their other attacks or were they acting alone?  At the same time, we have to consider how the attackers were motivated. Were they motivated by personal animosities or were they part of an organisation.

If they were part of an organisation, where is the structure? Security services work well on fighting organisaitons, either by monitoring them, or infiltrating them.  Even the most tightly controlled cell structure can be unravelled or will show itself within a society given the high level of monitoring and informants.

If this was an organised attack, then we need to consider how the attackers were motivated in terms of their “radicalisation”. By that, I do not mean by religion, I mean the political indoctrination needed to encourage them in this political act. The issue then becomes whether are self-directed or directed by others either locally or externally. If they were radicalized, we would need to know the source and the time. One possibility, that is worrying, is that such radicalisation is occurring remotely so that they do not have to travel, where they can be intercepted, and their agent cannot be caught in the UK.

A related series of questions need to look at whether this attack shares any similarity or connection to the Boston Marathon attack. By that, I do not mean that the attackers knew each other. What I mean is the question of whether such attacks are being planned and directed by others who are encouraging such “home-grown” attacks as part of the clandestine war between the West and political forces within the Middle East.  At any given moment, there are rumours of attacks, aborted plans for attacks, and possible attacks being planned with no intention of succeeding.[1]  They are the noise that intelligence agencies have to sift through on a daily basis to find imminent threats.

If a terrorist mastermind, a new Bin Laden, is orchestrating these attacks or encouraging them, as a way to strike at the West, what are the potential counter measures? If the outlines of the attacks were being seen, amongst the intelligence noise, what decisions were made about security measures for UK soldiers?  In an extreme situation, we could consider whether signals have been seen but nothing can be done until an attack shows itself.  Such outcomes are very rare, but not impossible.  Instead of trying to coördinate another 7 July 2005 attack, which the government is prepared to counter, we may be seeing a lower scale set of attacks that are harder to prevent, deter, or even detect.

Conclusion: Too soon for answers, but questions need to be asked.

What these tentative thoughts show me is that the first situation is too fluid for concrete judgements. What I hope to have shown is that there are still a lot of questions to be answered. What is certain is that the attack does not have a simple political message or lesson. As citizens, we need to ask difficult questions and demand complex and nuanced responses. If we are to be free, and most importantly safe, we have to go beyond the headlines, we have to go beyond the lurid stories, we have to go beyond the visceral reaction stirred by the media.  Instead, we need to look at what the security services knew about the possibility of the attack. We need to know what is being done to protect UK soldiers in the UK. Most importantly, we as citizens have to ask what we can do to strengthen our civic society to keep such “home-grown” attacks from being planned or succeeding. If we cannot answer those questions, let alone ask them, then neither the citizens, nor the government, have learned the lessons from the 7 July 2005 attack.[2]


[1] In the wake of 11 September 2001 attacks, we saw reports that various story lines in books and proposed screenplays had a similar plot.

[2] After those attacks, neither investigation report pointed the blame at anyone. Instead, it concluded that lessons had to be learned. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4763097.stm


[i] Karl Von Clausewitz argued that war was simply politics by other means. In this sense, I regard the attacks as political and not religious. In this statement, I am purposefully leaving aside the idea that politics and religion are the same in contradistinction to philosophy.  Moreover, I use this approach to avoid focusing on the question of Islam.  The attack was political for a political purpose. There is no religious purpose served by this attack.

[ii] The Police briefed the press, and the public, after the attack to say that De Menezes was wearing poofy jacket (he was wearing a thin denim jacket). In this claim, they were misleading the press and public. http://www.politics.co.uk/news/2007/8/2/public-deliberately-misled-over-de-menezes-sh

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About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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