The stories, photos and video footage from Woolwich on Wednesday were deeply shocking. The butchering of a young man in broad daylight on a busy London street is so obviously an act of barbarism that it barely warrants saying. How though should we think about, conceptualise, and respond to this troubling event?
First, it is a sad fact that it is particularly hard to prevent acts such as this, when one or two people act in, what appears to be, relative isolation. As with the recent Boston bombings, the two perpetrators were known to the security and intelligence services. However, the mouth of the intelligence funnel was widened in 2012, due to events such as the Olympics, meaning that their names appeared on a list alongside two or three thousand others. In cases such as this it is extremely difficult to identify the transition from extremism to violent extremism.
Second, knife crime in London is, if not as widespread as often suspected, still a worryingly frequent occurrence. It appears that at least one of the perpetrators had a history of gang and knife crime. While clearly politically motivated, it is possible to suggest that we could ‘de-exceptionalise’ the abhorrent attack in Woolwich, responding to it as a criminal rather than terrorist incident. Such a move might limit the publicity the event generates for the perpetrators’ cause, deter copycat moves, and lead to a more effective political response.
Third, foreign policy is, if not a direct cause of terrorism, certainly an important driver in the process of radicalisation for many who go on to identify with violent extremism. Very little unites terrorists beyond their sense of political grievance. And, since 2001 in particular, it is foreign policy that has often been cited as the source of grievances motivating what is, after all, a form of political violence. Greater recognition of this fact would be welcome in British counter-terrorism strategy and the Prevent workstream tackling radicalisation.
For a 2012 blog on revising Prevent and tackling radicalisation, see: Do the Roots of Violent Radicalisation lie where the UK Government suspects they do?