The young man dripping with blood after the murder of a U.K. soldier declared in a south London accent that he was acting in defense of “our lands.” He didn’t mean Britain.
The intent of the words and deeds are among the puzzles law enforcement has set to solving. As investigators piece together the attackers’ path to a vicious daylight assault outside a military barracks in London, security experts are again confronting the issue of home-grown terror.
“It’s the million-dollar question of why someone becomes radicalized,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and author of the book “We Love Death as You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen,” due to be published shortly.
The killing caught on tape and broadcast around the world has reignited a debate about how to prevent homegrown attacks on British soil after more than a decade of U.K. engagement in foreign conflicts and how to allocate the 31 billion pounds ($47 billion) the government will spend in 2013-14 on public order and safety.
Michael Adobalajo, one of the two alleged attackers, was under arrest in a London hospital after being shot by police. The other alleged assailant remains unidentified and is in a separate hospital. The victim was named as Lee Rigby, a drummer in the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
Police said yesterday they also arrested a man and a woman, both 29, on suspicion of conspiracy to murder.
The Independent newspaper reported yesterday that Adebolajo was known to belong to a banned Islamist organization, Al Muhajiroun, which favors sharia law and publicly celebrated the Sept. 11 bombings in the U.S. He went by the name of Mujahid --a Muslim engaged in holy war -- until two years ago, Anjem Choudary, the group’s former leader, was cited as saying by the newspaper. No charges have been filed.
All experts can do is guess about his motive.
“It’s often for a blend of personal and political reasons that someone is radicalized,” Pantucci said in an interview today. “Perhaps it’s what MI5 identify as ‘blocked mobility’ -- your life is not going in the way you’d like or perhaps the call to radicalism is the loudest thing in your life.”
In 2010, a 21-year-old woman was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing British lawmaker Stephen Timms after she downloaded teachings from the Internet inciting jihad against non-Muslims.
Roshonara Choudhry had been attending King’s College in London until only weeks before the crime. In a letter to her mother found on her computer, Choudhry said she hated living in Britain and couldn’t live in a non-Muslim country.
“She was a very bright student doing English and planning to be a teacher,” Timms said in a telephone interview today. “She dropped out and spent a huge amount of time listening to the sermons of Anwar al-Awlaki. His message was ‘strike a blow where you can.’”
In 2008, the domestic security agency, MI5, released a classified report to the Guardian newspaper saying there is no clear way to identify or profile those who become involved in U.K. terrorism.
Drawing on case studies, it found the majority of those engaged in terrorist acts are British nationals; many lack religious literacy and a higher-than-average number are religious converts.
The newspaper, which was allowed to read the classified report, said there is no more evidence of mental illness than in the general population. The majority of those engaged in acts are in their early- to mid-twenties when they become radicalized and almost all hold low-grade jobs. Yet they are no more unintelligent or gullible than the rest of the population, the report said.
MI5 estimates that British nationals account for three quarters of prisoners jailed for terrorism offenses in the U.K. Fifty-two people were killed by four British-born suicide bombers in London on July 7, 2005. Security services have since halted a number of attacks being planned by young British men.
“Unless the government helps the Islamic community to eradicate extremism we can’t do anything,” Saeed Omer, 44, a spokesman for the Greenwich Islamic center said in an interview today. “We fight with Muslim extremism. We have kicked them out of here. We have gone to court to kick them out.”
Jacqui Smith, who served as home secretary from 2007 to 2009, said the case yesterday more closely represents the type of attack seen in Northern Ireland in recent years that targets individual soldiers. That contrasts with other al-Qaeda attacks that aim for maximum damage and loss of life such as the so-called 7/7 attacks, she said.
“This has more resemblance to Northern Irish terrorism in terms of its method,” she in a telephone interview today. “Given that is was an attack on an individual representing the military as opposed to an attack on just a crowded place.”
The U.K. counter-terrorism strategy, known as CONTEST, is made up of four strands. Smith said it was developed to deal with home-grown terrorism. The first, “Prevent,” involves community engagement to deter radicalization of individuals. The second, “pursue,” means authorities will go after terrorists posing a threat to the U.K.
The third, “protect,” involves improving security to borders, transport and buildings. “Prepare” focuses on assessing risk, improving responses and evaluation of preparedness for attack.
A trial of the two suspects would be the first for a terrorism attack in the U.K. since before the 7/7 attacks. Since 2006, defendants convicted for plotting to commit terrorism in the U.K. have been sentenced to as much as life in prison. In many of the cases, the men were British nationals who converted to Islam.
Radicalization can appeal to an individual because it can be “quite empowering,” Pantucci said. “You are not some loser, you are a proud Muslim who is supporting and fighting for your community. It’s a comforting and fulfilling message that you are part of a bigger cause.”