By Jeremy Havardi
23 May 2013
Yesterday's sickening beheading in Woolwich has provoked shock and revulsion from across the political spectrum. Even though the full details remain sketchy at the time of writing, it is already clear that this bore all the hallmarks of a typical jihadist attack.
One of the terrorists tried to offer televised justification for his crimes by reference to the perceived iniquities of British foreign policy. "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We must fight them."
This victim mentality, allied to the belief that any western intervention in the Muslim world merits a violent response, is a classic feature of Islamist thinking. It suffuses the outlook of many a writer, from Qutb to al Banna, and from Khomeini to Bin Laden. All justify their war against the West by invoking the conspiratorial claim that Islam and the umma are under constant threat from 'Crusader' forces. Only the removal of these 'infidels' can rescue the Muslim world from its despond.
No doubt, evidence will soon emerge of how the perpetrators were radicalised, possibly by watching extremist material on the internet which encourages the beheading of 'kuffar' (unbelievers).
But one other name must be mentioned in connection with yesterday's attack: Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-Yemeni preacher who used to front al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and who was assassinated by the US in 2011. Al-Awlaki specifically endorsed 'lone wolf' attacks against soft targets in western countries. He believed that such attacks would be hard to thwart, particularly if the individual perpetrators were not part of an organised group that was under the radar of the security services.
Al-Awlaki was known to have communicated with Nidal M. Hasan, the American army medical corps officer charged with shooting 13 soldiers in the Fort Hood massacre. Hasan was not subsequently found to have had prior links to any terrorist group. A year later, Al-Awlaki defended Hasan using the kind of justification that was heard yesterday: "How can we object to...Nidal Hasan's operation. He killed American soldiers who were on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq. Who would object to that?"
The Yemeni preacher was also strongly connected to other terrorists, such as the Nigerian student Umar Abdulmutallab who tried to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on a plane. Security services believe that he listened to Al-Awlaki's sermons in a number of London mosques.
A year after Fort Hood, Roshonora Choudhry attacked the MP Stephen Timms at his constituency surgery in an attempted assassination. She had listened to al-Awlaki's sermons and stated that she wanted "to get revenge for the people of Iraq.” Police at the time believed that she was 'self-radicalised' and became converted to the terrorist cause by listening to online material. She is not believed to have had any prior connections to Islamist groups.
Today al-Awlaki exercises considerable influence from beyond the grave through the political warfare magazine Inspire. It conveys his idea that extremist Muslims should carry out covert operations against targets independently, both to terrorise populations and disrupt the security services. If one cell is captured, it will not compromise the plotting of another.
The cases mentioned appear to strongly reflect this strategy. They have an unmistakable connection, with easily-radicalised individuals carrying out random acts of terror on their own initiative. The perpetrators are Al-Awlaki's children.
Given the plethora of jihadist websites that depict western soldiers as satanic forces, and the immense difficulties of policing the internet, there is no shortage of recruitment material for these acts of terror. It is a sobering thought that attacks like yesterday's horrific killing may become al-Qaeda's tactic of choice in the future. The jihadist war against the West would seem to be heading in a worrying new direction.
Jeremy Havardi is a journalist and the author of two books, Falling to Pieces, and The Greatest Briton