Regrettably, the reaction to the brutal murder of drummer Lee Rigby would seem to imply that Britain has learned little in over a decade of worrying about terrorism. Despite draconian laws, we are told that Britain has not been tough enough on ‘violent extremism’. Because of the behaviour of two people, the other 63 million of us face the prospect of unwarranted monitoring of our Internet traffic data. From Tony Blair, no less, we have heard that the problem is ‘within Islam’. Too often, so it seems, universities are allowing Muslims to attend speeches at which they – horror or horrors – choose to sit with others of their own gender. Other commentators – seemingly milder – have called for more engagement with ‘communities’, despite the millions already spent on Britain’s much vaunted (and widely imitated) ‘Prevent’ programme.

While these responses have tended to be authoritarian, cliched or downright nasty, they all suffer from a more serious problem – they are all wrong. Moreover, in their wrongness, they fail to point out what is, in fact, significant and important about the Woolwich killing. 

Perhaps the first point that needs to be made is that the incident says nothing about the failure of British counter-terrorism. If anything, it would seem to indicate that it has done rather well. 

The most obvious reason for saying this is that – horrible as it was – the Woolwich killers were responsible for the death of a single man. This death represents the end of an eight year run in which – with the exception of Kafeel Ahmed, who died of burns inflicted in the course of his own attempt to bomb Glasgow airport – jihadist terrorists succeeded in killing not a single person on British soil. But more importantly, the method of attack employed by the killers was one which could barely have resulted in more deaths than this. Armed with cleavers and a gun which, for some interesting reason, remained unusued, the killers were not setting out to produce mass casualties. They were setting out to produce one, highly symbolic casualty. This was, in other words, the method of people who either knew they would not be able to carry out a more lethal attack, or who did not aspire to one. Not for them the bombs, poisons, or assault weapons of jihadi manuals, for all the effort that Al Qaeda has put into trying to encourage and facilitate these highly favoured attack methods. 

Perhaps the killers had learned the lesson of the numerous bomb plots which have been either thwarted at the planning stage or, more rarely, have thwarted themselves at the operational stage. But there is a more interesting possibility: that they knew there would be no constituency for anything but an attack of (in jihadist logic) impeccable legitimacy. If so, one might argue that not only has British counterterrorism worked in terms of practically disrupting terrorist plots, but that (whether because of or in spite of officially sanctioned policy), violent extremism has moved on in ideological terms as well. This was, in other words, the sort of attack carried out by people who were aware of being substantially constrained not only by practical barriers, but also (perverse as it may sound) rather strong moral scruples.

It is these features which present the Woolwich attack as, arguably, the paradigm of a new type of jihadist violence which has been gradually emerging over the past few years. And it is in this that the significance of the attack (and the irrelevance of most of the commentary about it) would principally seem to lie.

First, while this attack was obviously ‘extreme’ in a behavioural sense, much of what is problematic about it lies precisely in the fact that the actual belief being enacted by the killing in Woolwich (that the British involvement in Afghanistan is unconscionable and that British forces have blood on their hands) is by no means uncommon or indefensible. If one believes that British forces have no right to be in Afghanistan, then it is hardly an outrageous conclusion that local Afghan forces have the right to kill them. And if one believes that, then it is not such a bizarre claim that this right extends beyond Afghan soil. It is precisely the plausibility of the idea upon which the act was founded, rather than its outrageousness, that makes it so worrying. 

Second, the idea that some kind of engagement with the ‘Muslim community’ is a meaningful response to this attack should be clearly perceived as nonsense. Jihadists like the ones that carried out the attacks in Woolwich – very often converts as these ones were – are simply not a part of the ‘Muslim community’ in any meaningful sense. Their identity status is closer to (though this is still not a perfect analogy) youth subculture than to any ethno-religious grouping.

But lest this give succour to those who would claim that there is a distinctive and more or less homogeneous ‘ideology’ at work here which, like some kind of pathogen, must be dealt with by quarantine and inoculation, this view must also be rejected. Jihadism is not an organised cult or even a unified set of beliefs. It emerges rather from certain unfortunate collisions between things which are hardly threatening in their own right: fundamentalist Islamic piety (which is often in itself apolitical, and focused, like its Christian equivalent, on turning around the lives of people at the margins of society); and dissident political beliefs which are the very stuff of democratic society. Neither of these things can or should be suppressed. When (as in certain groups like Al-Muhajiroun) they appear side by side with other indications of possible violent risk there is at least a case to be made (as the British government did indeed do in this instance) for banning them. What else can the government do? Today’s terrorist may be yesterday’s community activist who gets young men off drugs and helps children to cross the road. Believing in a religion is not a crime. Nor is it to hold a political opinion shared by many others.

All this suggests that we need to look less towards vague notions of ‘violent extremism’ and more towards the specific actions by which this, in itself, meaningless abstraction sometimes makes itself all too real. And here again it would seem that there is something rather extraordinary about the stomach churning butchery that happened outside Woolwich barracks. Terrorism, we are often told, is violence as communication. And yet if it is so, it is perhaps strange how narrow the theatrical repertoire of terrorism has been. This is perhaps particularly so with regard to phenomena such as jihadi-salafist and white supremacist terrorism, both of which draw self-consciously on richly (cod) historical iconography. While a group like Hamas, for example, may tack the Qur’an, the odd Islamic slogan, or a few kitsch looking clouds to its imagery of kalashnikovs, RPGs and bandanas, the world it invokes is still very much that of the typical guerrilla fighter.

The jihadist world, by contrast, is one of galloping horses, billowing banners, curving scimitars and spiky armour. And yet despite this, with only a few rare, important, exceptions, the world evoked by jihadist action has been largely the old fashioned one of bullet and bomb. There is a paradox here of which jihadists are not unaware. First, if violence is primarily symbolic – a ritual act of service to a cosmic war, rather than a narrowly strategic act of clinical killing – then there is no reason why it may not enact itself however it pleases. Why kill with the new fangled bullet when one can kill with the prophetically authentic arrow? Why use the car bomb when one could charge nobly on horseback? Why use the suicide vest when the hadith that is supposed to legitimate suicide attacks relates to the heroic act of plunging head first into the enemy, not trying to die, but fearing nothing for one’s own life. 

The Woolwich killers said they came to start a war. It would be a bloody stupid government that took them at their word.

Gilbert Ramsay

About Gilbert Ramsay

Dr. Gilbert Ramsay is a lecturer on terrorism at the University of St. Andrews.