Lessons of the London butchers
The sickening scene from Britain of a blood-spattered man spouting Islamist hatred, who had just beheaded an off-duty British soldier in broad daylight, sends shivers down the spine. Is this the face of modern terrorism? If so, is no one safe anymore?
After the initial horror at the barbaric butchery on a leafy London street come questions about our attempts to prevent terrorism. Eleven years on from the attacks of September 11, we are still left grappling with some basic questions: What exactly is terrorism? And what can we do, if anything, to prevent it?
The British prime minister, David Cameron, his colleagues, and top officials and police have been careful not to jump to conclusions. They have avoided the rush to judgment that so many in the United States urged on the Obama administration in describing the motivation of the killers of ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. It is not that they do not take the killers at their word; it is because they simply do not know.
Cameron was careful not to prejudge or speculate on the motives of the two suspected culprits, who made no attempt to escape and waited for the police to come and arrest them. “There are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident” was as far as he would go. It was even left to French President Francois Hollande – Cameron was in Paris ‑ to let slip that the British authorities knew the victim was a soldier.
The Metropolitan Police chief was even more cautious. “We understand concern about the motivation, and we will work tirelessly to uncover why this occurred and who was responsible,” he said. “I understand people want answers, but I must stress we are in the early stages of investigations.”
The British have a meticulous approach to preventing the prejudicing of evidence and juries that the American First Amendment does not allow. In the United States, we guess first and investigate later. Even by the morning after the attacks, Cameron remained reluctant to acknowledge that the jihadist language used by one of the killers in the immediate aftermath of the killing automatically made him a terrorist.
Instead, he went out of his way to distance Islam from the slaughter. “We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms,” he said. “This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act.”
This has put the official jostling to avoid jumping to conclusions in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi killing of four Americans in a fresh light. There has been widespread scoffing that no one dare call the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens a terrorist act, though it had all the characteristics of terrorism. The suggestion has been made that the to-and-fro over how the attack should be described must have been politically motivated.
Sometimes it is important for law enforcement officials to stay mum rather than jump too quickly to conclusions, even if the motive is misconstrued. The CIA considered the ambassador’s premises in Benghazi a crime scene that might provide them with proof that would bring the killers to justice. Agents now have five suspects in their sights, under 24-hour surveillance, but are waiting until they have enough evidence to surely convict.
The CIA appears to have learned lessons from the roundup of al Qaeda suspects after September 11. There are already too many untried detainees held in Guantanamo – at least 45 of them genuine cold-blooded terrorists – without enough evidence against them for the CIA to ad five from Benghazi. Maintaining the rule of law is important for a civilized nation, but it comes at a price. Sometimes, justice is not served.
The failure to allow Gitmo detainees to be repatriated to face trial on American soil has caused, by the reckoning of a joint CIA, FBI and Pentagon task force, 86 innocent men to be held indefinitely by American forces. That is shameful, which is why President Barack Obama’s new initiative to provide justice to those at Gitmo is so welcome. Hypocrisy is the lifeblood of politics, which perhaps explains why the very constitutionalists who most conspicuously praise the principle of the rule of law are often the same as those who demand lynch law for suspected terrorists, even when they are known to be innocent.
The cases of the butchers of London and the Boston bombers raise an even more fundamental question: What exactly is terrorism? When Osama bin Laden was running al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and coordinating terrorist outrages around the world, the shape and modus operandi of terror networks was well established. In the 11 years since 9/11, however, the central management of al Qaeda’s operation has been defeated and the duty to continue the Islamist fight passed to individual jihadists.
But when is a murderer a terrorist and when is he simply an egotistical killer eager to grab the headlines? There is an iteration of Islamist terrorism that learned from the Allied invasion of Afghanistan and the defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq that they were no match for the Western military and its sophisticated technology. Islamist terrorism has largely devolved to individuals who work independently or in small cells and perpetrate well-planned or opportunistic horrors using everyday equipment bought in pharmacies and hardware stores.
How to deal with hydra-headed terror without impinging on our liberties is the greatest puzzle yet to be solved by contemporary law enforcement. Eternal vigilance is not particularly effective, even when accompanied by saturation eavesdropping by street cameras. But as the London outrage has shown, we may be in another phase.
Almost everyone now has a cell-phone camera, and brave souls are prepared to tackle armed terrorists. The heroine of the hour in London is a woman Cub Scout leader, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, who, hearing the blood-drenched killer yammer, “You people will never be safe,” and threatening “war in London,” calmly replied, “You’re going to lose. It is only you versus many.”
Both the London and Boston killings appear to have been perpetrated by disenchanted young Muslim men. Despite one of the Boston bombers’ travel to Chechnya and their reported reliance upon an al Qaeda handbook to build the pressure cooker bomb that killed three and maimed 264, exiled Chechen separatist leaders fiercely denied connections with the pair and so far the FBI have failed to establish a direct link between the bombers and Islamist terrorist leaders. And until Scotland Yard establishes a connection between the London killers and a known terror network, they will be cagey about calling the two suspects terrorists.
The British have a long history of countering terrorism. From the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s, the Irish Republican Army waged wave after wave of terror attacks on soldiers and civilians, including an annual bombing campaign on Christmas shoppers. The IRA’s fighters were well disciplined and had a clear aim and an ideology. Because of the nature of their business, they attracted psychopath
tics without any ideals or ideology only too happy to kill for fun.
That is why sorting real terrorists from the murderous insane must remain at the heart of counterterrorism. Wild talk about revenging the sins of Muslims in general may be good business for a tabloid cable news station catering to xenophobes, but it cannot be the standard of a democratic government and its instruments of law and order. Merely shouting “Allah is good!” as the London killers did, does not define a crime as an act of terrorism.
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” He was wiser than he knew. As the British like to say, we are all going to have to “keep calm and carry on.”
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: A police forensics officer investigates a crime scene where one man was killed in Woolwich, southeast London May 22, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth