Why Woolwich Matters: The South London Angle

The vivid and disgusting images witnessed in Woolwich come not necessarily from the pages of Al-Qa'ida's Inspire magazine, but out of rap videos shot in South-East London. Here is an environment that combines urban disaffection with perceived certainties from Islam.

By Professor Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Exeter University

While much media coverage has foregrounded the relationship between the attackers and so-called 'extremists', this has been to the detriment of other key details - namely the fact that both attackers had come from, and were active in the South-East London Muslim scene. Analyses neglect the powerful and important combination of race, class, ethnicity and Islam which is often present and potent in the area.

South-East London especially Brixton, has  been a  frontline of radicalisation and counter-radicalisation over the past 20 years, with regular confrontations between the Afro-Caribbean convert community and firebrands such as Abdullah Al-Faisal and Abu Hamza as long ago as 1993. For some of South-East London's converts, Islam has a 'street cred' and Islamic vocabulary and symbols matter not just in terms of worship, but also in terms of the way people discuss contemporary political issues.

For example, the embrace of Islam (at least nominally in terms of self-designation, if not actual practice) by some gangs of South-East London has been (and continues to be) a regularly occurring phenomenon. In these instances young men, previously were involved in criminal activities including (but not limited to) gang membership, physical violence and intimidation, drug dealing, robbing ('steaming'), property theft.

All of this is often termed as 'Street Life' by former and current actors; they have embraced Islam (particularly what they perceive, though many would dispute) as an observant and orthodox Salafism. Whereas individuals like Al-Faisal and Abu Hamza hoped to recruit young Muslim converts to their violent inspiring form of Islam, Brixton Muslim communities have regularly challenged those who promoted violence in the name of Islam for two decades.[1]

Gangs and Islam in South-East London

One of the most important aspects of this South-East London scene is the combination of Islam and the street. Something changed in South-East London gangs between 2000 and 2005.[2] For one former gang member, it was clear that 'the Muslim thing had happened' - that 'the Taliban, rebellion and Islam' were in the air. There was a combination of lay preachers, such as Al-Faisal and Abu Hamza al-Misri and former gang members who had converted to Islam in prisons who were all decrying the 'West's demonisation of Islam' while also emphasising the racial prejudice that was seen to hamstring the potential for economic and social advancement for these same gang members.[3]

In part, this reflected the previous influence of Abdullah Al-Faisal (also known as Faisal al-Jamaikee), a Jamaican born Muslim lay-preacher who regularly quoted from the Qur'an and Marcus Garvey in his sermons to explain how and why Muslims have an obligation to confront the evils perpetrated by (mainly white) non-Muslims in history and today. Al-Faisal regularly combined discourses of race and Islam in order to instil a sense of obligation to confront injustice against Muslims, and has publicly called for the murder of non-Muslims (and was convicted and imprisoned for these offences in 2003).[4]

This phenomenon was portrayed as a specific problem - where 'radical' Islamic groups sought to recruit (often described as 'groom' or 'turn') 'vulnerable' young men, who were already participating in low to mid-level criminal activities, such as robbery and drug dealing, to a form of Islam which sanctioned violence against non-Muslims (gangs and 'civilians') and encouraged them to support, if not participate, in Al-Qa'ida style activities.[5]

While media reports focused on the potential terrorist connection, the Islamic evolution of South-East London street gangs was often less sensational but more complex. Members of gangs were often incarcerated in young offenders institutions - and spent parts of their youth lurching from street to prison and back again. As gang members embraced Islam, many attempted to leave behind criminal activity (some more successfully than others) - and turned their attention to things like music rather than drug dealing.

The narratives of such processes of embracing Islam (referred to by those who embrace Islam as 'reversion') are manifold. Some undergo this process while imprisoned and/or are on remand in adult and juvenile penal facilities, others experience a more nominal shift in identity which relates more to street and gang politics than a sudden and/or dramatic shift in religious observance and lifestyle. For some, Islam is described as providing a clear structure - a set of rules and practises that make leaving the temptations of street life behind a more achievable proposition. For others, Islam is alleged to provide a justification for robbing and committing acts of physical violence and theft against other non-Muslim gangs and non-Muslims in general.

In this process of metamorphosis, these re-formed gangs created something relatively unique - clinging to old gang structures, but documenting a transition from a 'street code' to Islam. These processes of reversion as a function of 'social protest', disaffection with lifestyle, or because of personal crisis, are common characteristics of those who come to embrace Islam.[6]  This embrace of Islam by entire gangs simultaneously reflected the 'street rep' (or street credibility) of Islam and a search for personal salvation.[7] For these gangs, and in this street scene, Islam lends credibility, legitimacy and a sense of power to a street rep. A Muslim gangster represents someone 'beyond the system', untouchable by normal laws.

From Electric Avenue to Mogadishu

For those specific individuals who embrace Islam within this specific niche of 'Street Islam' - especially for those who embrace Islam in order to leave behind criminality and the street, the importance of jailhouse conversion often goes unreported and underestimated. Yet, in this scene, it is a key way that many new Muslims come to find solace in their new faith. For such individuals embracing Islam in prison, as a function of trying to leave behind this street life and the need to carry a reputation, they feel that it is absolutely essential to leave the streets physically behind. There is a high degree of anxiety about the pull of the temptation of the street - and idealism that the Islamic lifestyle - and the Muslim world, will act in a utopian fashion to transport the individual away from the trials and tribulations of everyday life.

This leads some of these new Muslims to seek to travel as part of their process of becoming a Muslim - some wishing to go Saudi Arabia, but finding it virtually impossible to obtain a visa, some to Egypt, but again finding it very expensive to get there, and previously subject to a high degree of security scrutiny on the part of the Egyptian authorities.  

In the recent past, an alternative destination of choice was the Yemen. Evidence for this is the observation of Yemeni fashion particularly the keffiyeh (head covering) - not worn in a traditional way, but more likely in a 'street' manner (as a scarf, for example). The problem immediately becomes that in the current climate, Yemen is considered a safe haven for elements of Al-Qa'ida - so what starts as an earnest attempt to escape the street becomes re-construed as a potential turn to terrorism.

More recent reports indicate that young men are now travelling to other locations in West Africa, including Nigeria and Ghana. Amongst these young men, often abroad for the first time, and feeling a need to atone for past (criminal) sins, there may be potential for radicalisation or redemption - with either outcome massively difficult to predict. In these attacks, it has been alleged that the suspects either travelled to, or attempted to travel to Somalia.

While such Jihadi tourism is relatively easy for the security services to monitor and disrupt, it cannot be simply understood in such contexts as reflecting a compulsion to do jihad. Living in a Muslim land, or indeed 'defending' a Muslim land, has to be understood as part of a desire to leave behind the idea of the impurity associated with non-Muslim lands. The combination of temptations, disappointments, and perceived sordidness  sit as key rationales for how and why these individuals  understand why they embraced Islam in the first place. Therefore, in these specific contexts, and coming out of the 'South London Scene', it has to be contextualised in such a way that it can be understood as part of this desire to find personal salvation.

Significance for Woolwich Attacks

The exact details of this murder will become clearer over the coming days, weeks and months as the Police and Security Services piece together the evidence and causes of what happened. The details above may be more or less relevant as this evidence comes in. One of the key links between what is described here and the Woolwich attacks is that idea of bravado in the face of risk - of not caring about having bloodied hands full of knives in front of cameras and the police. On the one hand, this is an essential element of terrorism - the way in which a population is literally made to feel terror, yet on the other hand is a clear part of the gang code in this South London scene. The vivid, disgusting, and scary images come not necessarily from the pages of Al Qa'ida's Inspire magazine, but out of rap videos shot in South-East London.

Whatever the external links may be to foreign terrorist entities, individuals, or organisations, it needs to be remembered that the South-East London violent extremist scene has existed for some time and is not subject to foreign Al-Qa'ida inspired dog-whistles. Instead, the scene here, and in other parts of urban Britain, is one of disaffection and tainted by a perception that everyone not from 'the Street' either can't, or deliberately won't understand 'the Street'. In the South-East London scene, the Street can mean everything from a local estate, to post-code turf, to a specific (twisted) vision of what constitutes 'real Islamic practice', what is at times referred to on the street as 'real talk'.

The deep investigation and introspection that will follow this attack must not only take into account what we, as outsiders, understand as the causes of Islamically inspired terrorism, but what its meaning is within these kinds of communities as well. On the streets of South-East London and other urban centres throughout the UK, there is a perceived straight line between the British and American Government's rationales of the Iraq War, MP Expenses Scandals, perceptions of discrimination based on race, class or ethnicity, the Riots of 2011, and the Woolwich attack.

Whether such a straight line exists, or is even in anyway reasonable doesn't matter when considering why this attack happened, or how to prevent them in the future. It is likely that the current terrorist threat level will now get worse before it gets better - the likelihood of copycat events, of raised inter- and intra-community tensions, and the ever-growing threat of blowback from the slow toxic collapse of Syria are likely to lead to further and more profound violence.

What we can expect are domestic connections: a network of emotional (though not likely tactical) support amongst those who seek to rationalise, recruit, justify, and only occasionally perpetrate these kinds of horrific murders. The best we can hope for now is that we build on the Counter-Terrorist lessons, and notable successes, over the past two decades, and that we counter this new threat accordingly.

Jonathan Githens-Mazer is an Associate Professor in Ethno-Politics at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter. Twitter: @githensmazer

 The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Abdul Haqq Baker, 'Extremists in Our Midst', in New Securities Challenges Series edited by Stuart Croft (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

[2] Tim Pritchard, Street Boys: 7 Kids, 1 Estate, No Way Out  (London: Harper Collins, 2008).: 240

[3] Ibid.: 241

[4] Abu Ammenah AbduRahman as-Salafi and AbdulHaq al-Ashanti, Abdullah El-Faisal Al-Jamayki: A Critical Study of His Statements, Errors and Extremism in Takfeer  (Luton: Jamiah Media, 2011); Baker, Extremists in Our Midst.

[5] BBC Online, '"Muslim' Gangs Target Vulnerable," (2005); Ben Ashford, Anthony France, and Tony Bonnici, 'Bill Had a Gun Too;, The Sun, 17 February 2007.

[6] Kate Zebiri, British Muslim Converts  (Oxford: One World, 2008).: 53

[7] Pritchard, Street Boys: 7 Kids, 1 Estate, No Way Out.


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