The meat-cleaver-wielding killers who hacked a British soldier to death in a barbaric assault were known to the British security services but, like the Boston bombers, drew only cursory attention from intelligence agencies.
British security officials are drawing comparisons between the Woolwich killers and the Boston bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, arguing they represent a new generation of jihadists either born in the West or raised there. This new generation, security officials say, are difficult to identify in advance because their attacks are often opportunistic and, if directed by other jihadists, done so subtly.
“All four appeared to be on the periphery of jihad, possible wannabes, but escaped closer scrutiny because they didn’t appear to be dangerous,” a UK intelligence official told The Daily Beast. “They are not directly managed but they are inspired—[and] monitoring inspiration is no easy feat. How can you predict the ones who are going to act, who are going to go off and do something like this? We are going to have to rethink our criteria for monitoring, to pick out these natural born killers.”
A further challenge for security services on both sides of the Atlantic to identify these “natural born killers” is the low-tech nature of the attacks, leaving less of a footprint to follow before an attack: in the case of Boston, rudimentary pressure-cooker bombs; and in the case of the gruesome attack in Woolwich, southeast London, meat cleaver, knives, and machetes.
The Woolwich attack comes straight out of Al Qaeda’s terror playbook. The group’s former chief propagandist, the American-born Anwar al-Awlaki who was killed in a drone strike two years ago, had long urged supporters to launch lone-wolf attacks like this or the Boston bombings.
The two suspects—British-born Michael Adebolajo and 22-year-old Nigerian-born Michael Adebowale, also a Muslim convert—appear to have been radicalized by the Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, which was banned by the UK government in 2010 for alleged links with terrorism, officials said.
Al Muhajiroun—the Emigrants—was founded in Saudi Arabia by Omar Bakri Muhammad, a jihadist preacher originally born in Syria. Al Muhajiroun, which campaigned for the imposition of sharia law in the UK, initially attracted notoriety for a 2002 conference celebrating the 9/11 attacks. The group’s recruitment and propaganda activities on Britain’s university campuses, distributing anti-Jewish hate literature and offering to train militants, also raised alarms as did incendiary speech by the group’s founder who once vowed that Muslims would give the West “a 9/11, day after day after day.”
Known as the “Tottenham Ayatollah,” the radical preacher oversaw the International Islamic Front, an organization that allegedly trained and sent British Muslims to fight in Chechnya and the Balkans. For several years, Muhammad was also the conduit for statements from Osama bin Laden.
Living in Britain with his family for several years, Muhammad was blocked from returning to the UK while on a visit to Lebanon in 2005. And in 2010, the high-profile preacher was arrested in Lebanon.
Anjem Choudary, a former Al Muhajiroun leader, says the 28-year-old Adebolajo was known to him as a mujahideen, or holy warrior, who converted to Islam in 2003. “He attended our meetings and my lectures,” said Choudary, though he added that he wouldn’t describe Adeboloja as a member of his group. “There were lots of people who came to our activities who weren’t necessarily members.”
The video of the blood-drenched Adebolajo wielding a meat cleaver and yelling at bystanders filming him, contrasts with how his school friends in south London remember him.
In interviews with British newspapers, they expressed shock at what had happened to a man they remembered as nice and normal. But the signs of something going amiss came with not only his rejection of his Nigerian parents’ Christianity and his conversion to Islam at 15 but his obsessiveness about his newly adopted religion.
According to British security officials, his parents moved away from their home in south London and relocated to Romford because they feared he was being radicalized. He joined extreme Islamist groups, including Al Muhajiroun.
According to neighbor Kemi Ibrahim, Adebolajo went from being a regular teenager to being an aggressive young man who clashed regularly with his parents and showed potential for violence. “His parents were trying to keep him on the straight and narrow. They thought these guys were leading him astray.” She saw him smash a car window with a brick when he was about 17 years old.
In the British press there were unconfirmed reports that Adebolajo had been stopped recently—even possibly arrested—on his way to Somalia to join the Al Qaeda-linked Al Shabab group. But government sources declined to comment on the claims. If true, however, the country’s new intelligence director, Andrew Parker, is likely to face criticism from British politicians. After the July 2005 bombings in London, British intelligence officials came under heavy criticism for failing to maintain surveillance on some of the terrorists responsible for the bombings.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s savage attack on Drummer Lee Rigby of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, police shot both suspects, who are now being treated for their wounds. The 25-year-old Rigby was the father of a 2-year-old boy.
Choudary, the former Al Muhajiroun leader, dismisses any notion that his group bears any responsibility for what Adebolajo became. “He disappeared about two years ago. I don’t know what influences he has been under since then,” he told the press.
Instead, Choudary argued, blame rests with the British government for its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and intervention elsewhere. “This is one death. But if you add up the number of people killed and tortured by the British government, it is in the millions.”