Did similar detours bring terrorism to streets of Boston and London?

The early indications point to both sets of killers being second generation immigrants, who either through their social networks or online media came to militant Al Qaeda-style Islam later in life.

Luke MacGregor/Reuters
Soldiers pass by flowers left at a makeshift memorial outside an army barracks near the scene of a killing in Woolwich, southeast London, Thursday. British authorities believe that two men accused of the gruesome murder of a soldier yesterday on a London street was revenge for wars in Muslim countries.

The gruesome murder of a British soldier on the streets of Woolwich, London yesterday appears to have been carried out by men of Nigerian decent who converted from Christianity to Islam.

Reuters reports that "British authorities believe that two men accused of hacking a soldier to death on a London street in revenge for wars in Muslim countries are British of Nigerian descent, a source close to the investigation said Thursday." The wire service goes on to cite local media saying that one of the two suspects is a 28-year-old named Michael Adebolajo and that both men "appeared to have converted to Islam from Christian backgrounds," media said.

Now, "a source close to the investigation" and "media said" should always be approached with caution. But with both men in custody and alive, and with one of the killers having given a rambling interview while waving his bloodied hands yesterday, the chances that there's much confusion about his identity would seem to be low. 

So it seems that the two London killers have some commonalities with the Tsarnaev brothers who carried out the bombing attack on the Boston marathon. The early indications point to both sets of killers being second generation immigrants, who either through their social networks or online media came to militant Al Qaeda-style Islam later in life. While the Tsarnaevs were nominally raised as Muslim, most accounts say the older brother had become markedly more religious – and more radical – shortly before the attacks. He was thrown out of a Cambridge, Mass. mosque for launching an angry rant against praise by a prayer leader there for Martin Luther King, a non-Muslim. 

The zealousness of converts to any cause has given rise to proverbs and copious academic research. Most converts to Islam are not violent, of course. But they are over-represented in cases of Islamist terrorism in the West. Also of note, Muslims who receive a devout religious upbringing are comparatively less interested in involvement in terrorism. Some have argued a strong, conventional Muslim religious education actively works against a willingness to commit terrorism to civilians, and in a lot of majority Muslim countries, former drug dealers and convicts have been prime recruiting grounds for militant organizations, more so than mainstream mosques.

Robin Simcox and Emily Dyer wrote for West Point's Combating Terrorism Center in March that from 1997 to 2011 that 171 people came up before the US military or civilian court systems for "Al Qaeda-related offenses." They found that a quarter of the people convicted were converts to Islam and that "in fact, in three of the years between 2007 and 2011, and in eight of the years between 1997 and 2011, converts committed a higher proportion of [Al Qaeda-related incidents] than non-converts."

They write (I've stripped out their footnotes from the text):

The vast majority of converts (95%) were U.S. citizens, significantly higher than the 54% of U.S. citizens among all AQRO perpetrators. The remaining 5% of converts were British (for example, the “shoe bomber,” Richard Reid) or Australian (for example, David Hicks, who was found guilty in a military court of providing material support to al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan). By contrast, 45% of non-converts were U.S. citizens.

When disaggregated further, 83% of converts were born in the United States, significantly higher than the 21% among non-converts. Of all U.S.-born individuals, 54% were converts. Examples of U.S.-born converts include Hassan Abu-Jihaad, who provided classified information concerning the movements of a U.S. Navy battle group, and Daniel Maldonado, who received military training at a camp in Somalia where members of al-Qa`ida were present.

Also of interest is that in both cases, the motivations for the two sets of men had little to do with conflicts in their ancestral homes. Chechnya and Nigeria are both home to Islamist militant groups, and there was intense speculation that the Tsarneav's were somehow inspired by the Chechen conflict against Russia.

But as more information about them has come out, it seems their anger was directed at the US for fighting wars in Muslim lands, particularly Afghanistan and Iraq. The London killers appear to have been similarly angry at the UK's involvement in those two wars, as Ian Evans writes for the Monitor this morning

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?"

This again appears to fit with Tsarneav's. While it's hard for a complex terrorist attack in the US or the UK to maintain operational security, particularly if they're in electronic contact with a guiding organization abroad, a couple of mates who get inspired to act by rhetoric that they hear, read, or watch on YouTube don't throw off a lot of warning signs that authorities can home in on, if they're smart enough to keep their conspiracy small (bringing to mind the proverb "two can keep a secret if one of them is dead.")

Finally there's the use of "our lands" by the killer who gave the interview yesterday. That led a lot of people to wonder "which lands" but probably, in the context of this attack, they meant all "Muslim" lands, bouncing off the nation-less concept of the ummah (the whole community of believers, which is central to Islam, but in jihadi circles is used to justify a broad war against all who might harm Muslims, anywhere).

According to The Independent, one of the attackers at least fell in with al-Muhajiroun, an Islamist group banned in the UK that praised the 9/11 attacks on the US, after his conversion. The group worked hard to find converts in the UK, and preached a chauvinistic and violent approach to the faith outside of the mainstream.

Anjem Choudary, the former leader of the group, Al Muhajiroun, confirmed that he had known the man who was seen on video in the immediate aftermath of yesterday's horrific killing waving a cleaver with bloodied hands and making political statements. Mr Choudary said Mujahid, who he said had converted to Islam in 2003 and was a British-born Nigerian, had stopped attending meetings of Al Muhajiroun and its successor organisations two years ago.

Mr Choudary told The Independent: “I knew him as Mujahid. He attended our meetings and my lectures. I wouldn’t describe him as a member [of Al Muhajiroun]. There were lots of people who came to our activities who weren’t necessarily members.

"Mujahid" means holy warriors. Running down an armed man in a straight from behind and butchering him isn't much like war. But war is clearly what these men had on their minds.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.