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The Woolwich Murder: Initial Assessments of Another Lone Actor Attack

Commentary, 23 May 2013
Terrorism, Europe
From film and eye-witness footage, it is quite clear that the perpetrators of the Woolwich attack were motivated for terrorist ends. The trend is now quite apparent, as is their intended objective of sowing societal discord.

From film and eye-witness footage, it is quite clear that the perpetrators of the Woolwich attack were motivated for terrorist ends. The trend is now quite apparent, as is their intended objective of sowing societal discord.

Woolwich Help for Heroes TributesYesterday afternoon two individuals carried out a brutal attack on an off-duty British soldier. They then calmly announced what they had done to the surrounding crowd. This has sparked a reaction with the English Defence League (EDL), while separately individuals are alleged to have attacked mosques.  The assault  looks like the culmination of trends that have become increasingly visible in violent Islamist terrorism of late.

This is not the first time that such attacks or targeting has taken place. In May 2010, Roshonara Choudhry took a knife she had bought at Tesco and stabbed Stephen Timms MP. When asked about her motivation, she pointed to the fact that he had voted for the Iraq War. By her own admission, she had devised the punishment having watched videos by Anwar al Awlaki online. Targeting off-duty soldiers is also not new: within a British context there is the case of Parviz Khan who was plotting to kidnap and behead a British soldier in Birmingham .He was disrupted before he could successfully carry out his attack, but Mohammed Merah a 23-year-old French-Algerian was more successful. Having identified individuals  through online activity at home in Toulouse and Montauban, he shot and killed three soldiers, before targeting a Jewish school and murdering three children and a teacher.

The key elements in all of these incidents is that subsequently very little evidence emerged that these individuals had been tasked to carry out their incidents. There was verification that Merah and Khan had made connections to extremist groups abroad, but none had been tasked to do what they did. Choudhry on the other hand has so far had no links identified and no apparent direction beyond her own. It seems possible that the individuals in Woolwich may fall somewhere within this spectrum - possibly connected to radical groups either in the UK or abroad, but unlikely to have received much direction or tasking. When looking at orchestrated plots from abroad, the tendency has been for larger scale operations targeting higher profile institutions, individuals and usually deploying bombs.

In parallel to this trend of lone actor (or small cell) terrorism with no clear command and control, there has been a growing tendency towards the targeting of more local targets and domestic military sites. In a recent case in Luton, a group of men spoke of driving a remote control car laden with explosives into a local Territorial Army barracks. A separate group in Birmingham drove to Dewsbury planning on targeting an English Defence League (EDL) march at which they hoped to find the organisations leader. And even Roshonara Choudhry's choice of a random MP (amongst many) to punish for Iraq, all seem to suggest a targeting that is maybe seen as being part of a grander picture to the individual, but in expression seems random and very local.

A consequence of the attack is that it may incite hatred and anger between and among communities. The EDL have reacted to this recent incident vociferously and individuals have sought to attack mosques.

These trends have been increasingly visible in the past few years. From a security perspective, the dilemma is two-fold. On the one hand, how to identify lone actor terrorists who may feature in a larger intelligence picture, but do little to distinguish themselves from the crowd. And on the other, how to manage societal tensions when extremists on both sides prove eager to incite violent reactions in others.

Author

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow

Raffaello Pantucci's research focuses on terrorism and counter-terrorism as well as China's relations with its Western neighbours... read more

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