Anti-terrorist police are preparing to interview two hospitalized suspects arrested after a brutal attack on an off-duty soldier in southeast London who was butchered in the street with knives and a meat cleaver.
Sources quoted in the British media claim the two unnamed men were British but of Nigerian background who officers suspect have converted to a radical form of Islam.
While Nigeria is home to an Islamist insurgency called Boko Haram, early indications do not point to the conflict there as a genesis for their rage. Instead, the target of a soldier and the statements from his alleged killers suggest they were reacting to the long British military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The emphasis from Boko Haram is more internal inside Nigeria and less international. They understand the British Army is not involved in suppression within Nigeria which is being carried out by the Nigerian Army," says Paul Rogers, a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford. The group is fighting to set up an Islamic state in the mainly Muslim north of Nigeria.
Instead, says the professor, the attackers appear at this point to have launched the attack on their own after being radicalized. "This is the type of thing that the British authorities are most worried about," he says. "Counter-terrorism has almost doubled in size over the last 10 years with over 10,000 people now working in it whether it’s MI5, MI6 or police. But their problem is, how do you stop random attacks?"
How the suspects came to be radicalized is not known yet, but Professor Rogers points out: “We know extreme Islamic groups have used our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to radicalize Muslims."
In scenes widely replayed on social media and television, one of the bloodied men spoke to a camera saying: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you.
"We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don't care about you."
Eyewitnesses said the two men were shouting "Allahu Akbar" – God is great – as they attacked the unnamed soldier near the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich yesterday. It is thought the victim was hit by a car before he was attacked.
In a remarkable act of courage, a passer-by tried to calm one of the alleged killers by talking to him about the violence, earning widespread commendations.
Cub Scout leader Ingrid Loyau-Kennett told the ITV television network she first thought the victim had been in a car accident but after spotting the blood-spattered meat cleaver she tried to engage one of the men. She described him as a "regular guy" who was not on drugs or drunk, but seemed "upset."
As she knelt by the body she spoke to the man. "He said 'don't touch, I killed him'. I said 'Why?' He said 'He's a British soldier. He killed people. He killed Muslim people in Muslim countries.'"
“And I said, okay. So what would you like? I tried to make him talk about how he felt. He said all the bombs dropping and blindly killing women, children.”
Both men were shot by police and taken to separate hospitals. Relatives of the victim have been informed of the death, but he has not been named. It is thought the soldier was wearing a "Help for Heroes" sweat shirt – a military charity which helps wounded soldiers – at the time of the killing and a camouflaged rucksack.
In the immediate aftermath, soldiers were told not to wear uniforms in public for security reasons but today Prime Minister overruled the Ministry of Defence saying the best way to beat terrorism was to "continue with normal life." Today he held talks with the government’s emergency response Cobra committee as anti-terrorist police prepared to interview the two suspects and officers raided a house in Lincolnshire.
Overnight, police reported isolated attacks on mosques while officers in Woolwich battled with nearly 250 members of the English Defence League, an anti-Islamic group, protesting against the attack and Muslim immigration.
Today various Muslim groups condemned the killing. In a statement issued on its website, the Muslim Council of Britain said: “This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam and we condemn this unreservedly. Our thoughts are with the victim and his family.
“We understand the victim is a serving member of the Armed Forces. Muslims have long served in this country’s Armed Forces, proudly and with honour. This attack on a member of the Armed Forces is dishonourable, and no cause justifies this murder.”
Around 600 Muslims serve in the British Armed Forces.
The Stop the War Coalition condemned the killing but said the roots of the problem was Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Convenor Lindsey German said in a statement: “Any rational balance sheet of the last decade and more would demonstrate that the war on terror has been a failure in its own terms. It has not prevented terrorism but caused it to spread.
“The failure of politicians and military to face up to this has further damaging consequences: If the government refuses to change its own policy it has one simple solution - 'blame the Muslims'. Muslims are expected to condemn any such attack whereas no such demand is put upon people of other faiths when a killing is carried out by Christians. Muslim is also equated with black or Asian, as when one television reporter described the men as of 'Muslim appearance'.”