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The Risk Professional: London suffers terrorism in its purest form

Editorial Staff

The UK has suffered its first fatal terrorist attack since 7 July 2007. Running people down, hacking down people large knives is so common in some parts of the world that it warrants a small note on the inside pages of newspapers. But those attacks are usually related to organised crime or some perceived personal slight. But the murderous attack in Woolwich in south-east London was neither of those.

There are known facts: at a busy road junction at the time parents, mainly women, were on their way to collect their children from school, two men driving a small blue car, a Vauxhall Tigra, ran down a man walking near the Woolwich headquarters of the Royal Artillery, an armoured regiment that is frequently on the front lines in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Woolwich Arsenal was a favoured target of the IRA during its terrorist years in London. Like other barracks in town and city centres, it is difficult to protect,

After hitting the man, the car ran into a signpost with such force that its radiator broke.

The two men got out of the car and ran to the man who was lying on the ground. Then they attacked him with large knives variously described as "machetes" or "cleavers." They beheaded him.

Then they walked around talking to passers by, reportedly telling them what they had done and why. One stood under a road sign and spoke to a passer-by who recorded it on a camera in his phone. He made a point of being positioned where he was under the surveillance camera.

London has a substantial number of plain-clothes officers in unmarked cars. Many are armed. It also has a lot of police "on the beat." Within a matter of a minute or two police surrounded the men who continued to shout and wave their weapons, refusing to put them down. Very soon afterwards, an unmarked police car appeared at the scene. Two armed officers shot and injured the two men after warnings.

The two men appear to have chosen the location and the time carefully: a busy junction with many witnesses who were bound to be horrified, close to a military centre. The indications are that their target was connected with the military, some say he may have been a serving soldier.

One of the two men claimed on camera "I apologise that women had to see this today, but in our lands women have to see the same thing. You people will never be safe. Remove your governments! They don’t care about you.” He also said "any eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." He spoke with a clear London accent. More footage shows him saying "‘We swear by Almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reasons we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. 'You people will never be safe. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth .... This British soldier is an eye for an eye a tooth for tooth. We apologise that women had to see this today but in our lands our women have to see the same.’ In another clip he says "‘You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? You think your politicians are going to die? No, it’s going to be the average guy like you – and your children."

ITV News has issued stills (which are online but we are not going to link to them) of one of the men speaking calmly to the camera, his hands covered in blood and holding two weapons, one a butcher's style cleaver. It is illegal to carry such knives in public in the UK. The stills show people standing back, close to the school, but not running away.

Some reports say that, when the police arrived, the men charged them brandishing their knives and a "rusty revolver." Other reports say that the men fired a shot but that the old gun malfunctioned, blowing off the assailant's thumb. It is reported (in some media in sensationalist terms) that a armed policewoman shot both men, disabling them.

Eye witnesses say that, having hacked the victim, they dragged him into the road and left him, then made deliberate efforts to be visible to CCTV. They reportedly asked passers by to take their photographs.

The facts are bald - the suppositions less so. The two men are young - probably in their early to mid 20s. They have clear South London accents indicating that they were born in that part of London or moved there before another accent had time to form. Their dress is typical of much "urban" black youth in South London where gun crime, especially related to the drugs trade, flares up from time to time. Gang-land style murders were commonplace only five or six years ago and the gangs have access to guns. The two men are clearly of African descent, seemingly undiluted. There are rumours that at least one of them has a Nigerian background but the facial features of the one who is most anxious to be on camera suggests, to some, a background in Cameroon or Liberia. Some have suggested Somalia. It is notable that his speech was fluent and well structured: he is not uneducated or poorly educated.

They claimed their actions in the name of Allah, shouting (in Arabic) "Allah Akbar" - God is good - a phrase that is widely known having been used by a wide range of terrorists including air hijackers. But its most prominent use was perhaps the pilot of a commercial aircraft who is heard on the cockpit voice recorder repeating the words over and over again as he deliberately crashed his aircraft in a non-religious suicide.

The Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement saying that the attack was a ‘truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam’. ‘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."

There fear is that the two, like the USA's Boston bombers were an example of what some are calling "lone wolf" activists, not part of a formal terrorist group and not part of any cell. Because such activists (it's difficult to find a neutral word to describe them) do not communicate with wider groups, surveillance techniques do not work, nor do intelligence gathering techniques because they do not discuss their aims or even radical ideas with others.

In short, they are two ordinary men who one day go out into the streets and kill someone. In principle, this is no different to gangs of youths - skinheads in the UK and Germany and those engaged in "wilding" in the USA - who have, in the past, gone out with the aim of committing acts of violence.

But it is the purpose that makes this all the more chilling; it's the declaration that they hoped to see war on the streets of Britain, that turns this into a very worrying action that, some with good reason fear may turn into copycat actions.

The two men tried to turn themselves into martyrs, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style, expecting to suffer what the Americans call "death by cop." That the armed officer who shot them did so in such a way as to disable them rather then to kill them is commendable on many levels. But the media coverage, and the social media release of so much video, has turned them into anti-heroes. And that, in urban black communities, has long been an objective.

There is therefore a danger that there is leakage away from those motivated by terrorism to those who want to turn themselves into instant media stars. Fifteen minutes of fame is easy to get when every passer-by is a potential reporter.