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Butchery on a London street

by Hugh Cortazzi

The brutal and flagrant murder of an off-duty British soldier on a street in a London suburb in broad daylight on May 22 has caused both shock and horror in Britain. The two alleged assailants were British nationals of Nigerian origin in their 20s who had converted to Islam and been imbued with jihadist doctrines.

The assailants made no attempt to disguise the murder that they committed with knives and a hatchet. Nor did they try to escape from the scene. When two British women with outstanding courage attempted to succor the victim and remonstrate with the killers, one of the alleged assailants with blood on his hands ranted against the British Army for their involvement in attacks on Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq and declared that they demanded “an eye for an eye.” Much of this scene was recorded on CCTV cameras and mobile telephones of passers-by.

When the police reached the scene, the two alleged assailants, who were armed, apparently attempted to attack the police. They were then shot in the legs by police marksmen. Both were taken to hospital under armed guard. One of the assailants has been released from hospital and been charged with murder and the attempted murder of a police officer. No doubt his companion will be similarly charged as soon as he is fit enough to leave hospital.

The victim, drummer Lee Rigby, had come from a nearby barracks in civilian clothes, wearing a shirt with the name of a charity that works for injured servicemen. He had recently returned from Afghanistan and was married with a young child.

The victim seems to have been chosen at random as a symbol of the assailants’ hatred of the policies and defense forces of their adopted country. They probably hoped to become martyrs and attract support for jihad by their symbolic act of barbarism and butchery.

The British authorities, who were taken unawares by this act of terrorism, reacted quickly. A large-scale investigation was immediately launched and a number of other arrests have been made.

The Security Service (MI5) had apparently had contacts with one of the alleged perpetrators and may have tried to recruit him as an agent. But they did not rate him as an imminent threat and he was not being kept under surveillance. The resources for surveillance are inevitably limited and the Security Service has to decide its priorities on the basis of risk assessments. Without knowing all the facts we cannot blame any individual or individuals for what was clearly in this case an unfortunate error of judgment.

Security at and around British barracks has rightly been strengthened and servicemen warned to be on their guard, but it is not possible to guarantee safety everywhere and at all times.

The intelligence services have to determine whether this was a “one off” attack made by two “lone wolves” or a sign that other similar attacks are being planned. A soldier on patrol in Paris was attacked with a knife apparently by a man of North African origin a few days after the incident in London, but no evidence has so far emerged that the two attacks were connected.

Muslim prisoners in a top-security jail in Britain recently kidnapped a guard briefly and injured him and a wardress who came to his assistance, but there is no evidence to suggest that this incident was connected with the murder of drummer Rigby.

The authorities are rightly reviewing their strategy designed to discourage Islamic extremism. This campaign goes under the title “Prevent”; like other government programs in this age of austerity, resources have been cut.

Consideration is also being given to the problems caused by radical preachers. Measures to curb such preaching inevitably lead to questions about how far free speech can be subject to restraints beyond the those already existing against incitement to violence and racial hatred.

The intelligence and security authorities are pressing for powers to force telecoms and Internet providers to maintain records for up to a year of where and when calls are made, thus enabling the authorities to trace the contacts of potential terrorists. Such a measure, termed by critics as “the snoopers’ charter,” is opposed by human rights activists and liberals. Whatever the merits or demerits of this proposal, it is doubtful whether such a measure would have helped to prevent this act of barbarism.

The murder inevitably aroused anti-Islamic opinion in right-wing circles in Britain. Two extremist organizations — the English Defense League and the British National Party — staged demonstrations and there has been a significant surge in minor incidents involving mosques and women wearing head scarves.

While these incidents and attacks on Muslims should not be regarded with complacency the basic response from the British public has been of sympathy for the victim and his family as well as shock and horror that such an act could happen on our streets. The family of one of the alleged assailants issued a statement wholeheartedly condemning the murder and expressing their sympathy for the victim. Piles of flowers have been laid at the site of the murder, where crowds collected one week after the incident to show their respect for the victim by maintaining a minute’s silence.

The perpetrators, far from achieving martyrdom and a propaganda coup for jihad, have only succeeded in arousing abhorrence of their barbaric butchery and strengthened the British determination to combat terrorism. The intelligence and security services must redouble their efforts to outwit those who threaten our security, but the authorities need to avoid the sort of knee-jerk reaction that could complicate rather than simplify the problems facing our society. In particular we need to understand that violent jihad is not in accordance with Islamic teaching. Moderate and sensible Muslims are on the side of peace and social harmony. Our aim should continue to be integration not discrimination.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.