Sharad Joshi
Associate Fellow, International Security

The brutal killing of a British soldier near Woolwich Barracks in London, termed a terrorist attack by prime minister David Cameron, has once again put the spotlight on decentralized or lone-wolf type terrorist attacks. 

The attack was carried out by two British nationals of Nigerian origin who converted to Islam several years ago. They were on the radar of security agencies in the UK in the intervening years, but had noticeably not done anything to warrant arrest or prosecution. So far, no terrorist group has claimed responsibility. According to The Guardian, one of them, Michael Adebalajo, had been an active member of al-Muhajiroun, a banned radical Islamist group based in the UK. The group was formerly headed by the cleric Omar Bakri Mohammad, who is reported to have tutored Adebelajo on Islam after the latter’s conversion in 2003. 

It is likely that the perpetrators, especially Adebelajo about whom there seems to be more initial information, were radicalized into a violent Islamist ideology through their membership of al-Muhajiroun, which has a long track record of promoting violent jihad in various parts of the world. 

Although details are still forthcoming thus making any conclusions tentative, several issues are of salience. Coming just over a month after the Boston marathon bombings carried out by Chechen-origin radicalized Islamist individuals, the question is raised of whether these attacks signal a trend toward ‘lone-wolf’ type (oft-called, perhaps more accurately, ’stray-dog’) attacks, where it might not even be a terrorist cell, but in fact one or two radicalized individuals who decide to strike in the heart of a bustling city. Lone-wolf attacks do not necessarily involve a direct operational connection or directives from a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. But they can have religious doctrinal and training channels of communication between ideologues and terrorist leaders and recruits, especially those based in Western countries. 

Moreover, as the Woolwich attack shows, high-tech weaponry and explosives are not essential to execute a terrorist attack. This is not to say that there are no connections between local cells and broader terrorist groups. It is more that those connections have become increasingly complex and have taken on different roles, especially ideological indoctrination.  

Part of the radicalization strategy adopted by Islamist groups such as al-Muhajiroun is to use Western military involvement in various parts of the Muslim world to sway members of various communities (generally immigrant) toward a violent Islamist outlook. As the video clip of Michael Adebelajo taken immediately after the attack shows his anger directed at counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations by Western forces in parts of the Muslim world. It is similar to the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemeni-American extremist cleric who helped radicalize individuals like Major Nidal Hussain, a US military officer, who carried out the 2009 Fort Hood, Texas massacre. As the Boston and Woolwich attacks demonstrate, banning organizations like al-Mujahiroun will not be sufficient as new recruits can get radicalized through the internet and through visits to troubled regions including Chechnya, and parts of Pakistan and Africa.

For law enforcement and counter-terrorism agencies, the characteristics of such lone-wolf attacks pose various problems. Due to the lack of operational, financial, and logistical connections between the perpetrators and terrorist groups, it becomes more difficult to pinpoint future attacks and conspiracies; even when, as was the case with the Boston and Woolwich barracks attacks, the perpetrators had been investigated by security agencies. And since they are able to blend into their communities, with little actionable intelligence to distinguish them, the communities, which are frequently immigrant in nature, come under pressure as a whole. 

The low-tech nature of the Woolwich attack (using a car to hit the soldier and then brutally kill him with a machete) further complicates the task for the police and other related agencies – what items constitute a weapon that can be used in a terrorist attack? The Boston bombing involved pressure cookers which are common household items. Thus, the lack of sophistication in these recent attacks can allow similar plots to pass undetected under the radar of government agencies. The infusion of uncertainty regarding techniques, weapons, and potential perpetrators, means a risk-averse strategy would then involve blanket focus and pressure on entire communities.   

This decentralization of terrorism from high-profile, high-casualty, complex attacks – such as the 9/11 attacks and the 7/7 London bombings – into smaller, lower-level, seemingly unaffiliated attacks nevertheless goes some way in achieving the key objective that all terrorists and terrorist groups have: getting attention for their grievances. These grievances include the campaign in Afghanistan, and drone strikes in Pakistan, and Yemen. Meanwhile, the upheavals in the Middle East, especially in Syria, have hardly gone unnoticed by radicalized individuals like Michael Adeblajo, who reportedly was also focused on persuading volunteers to fight in the Syrian civil war, most likely on behalf of the Al-Qaeda-inspired and affiliated Al-Nusra Front. For governments in Europe and the United States, under the current circumstances, the policy objective is stark – stemming the radicalization of young recruits by Islamist groups and ideologues, who have an increasing number of channels through which to pass on their radical messages.

Also read:

The Woolwich Murder Did Not Merit the Cobra Treatment
David Livingstone, May 2013

Woolwich Attack: Managing Fear
Benoit Gomis, May 2013