The killing of soldier Lee Rigby has redefined terrorism, and so the ways in which it must be fought also need redefining, says Stuart McMillan.


The news of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby, beheaded in broad daylight on a street in Woolwich, shocked the nation and people around the world. But it seems that this incident and its aftermath, however without precedent, is becoming just one example of a number of similar attacks. First there were the Boston bombings, the Tsarnaev brothers, and a police manhunt, followed by a slew of news stories claiming that the intelligence services had been tracking the perpetrators for quite some time. Then there was the murder on British soil in which, as the story goes deeper, it has been found that MI5 and the CIA have been all over Michael Adebolajo, one of the prime suspects of Rigby’s killing, and the cell to which he belonged, for a long time now. The most recent story to come to light is the wounding in Paris of Private Cedric Cordier, a case which is now being handled by the French anti-terrorist services. A manhunt is on for the assailant, said to be from North Africa.


Such crimes do not deserve to be pulped into dehumanized statistics and made into graphs and charts from which we can draw conclusions, but they will be. The worrying trend that is occurring reveals to us that terrorism, far from being a feature of the previous decade which has in some way been neutered or staunched, is still very much alive today -and not in grand gestures, confined to organisations either directly or indirectly carrying out acts of mass killing, but on pavements and sidewalks. It has manifested itself recently increasingly not in widespread plots, but in singular, scarily localised acts of hostility. Whilst Boston was more a case of the old-style terrorism we have seen before, perhaps what was most shocking to us about the killing of Lee Rigby was that it was a new type of terrorism; one far more immediate and barbaric, and almost faceless.


We should not be surprised. Governments may be able to stop terrorists in Yemen, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan from conducting large-scale assaults, but it is difficult indeed to stop one man going onto a London pavement and committing murder. The definition of the ‘crime’ itself becomes blurred; was this murder first, terrorism second, or both together? Which aspect of the crime is more important, and to whom? Revelations that MI5 actually asked Adebolajo multiple times to become an informant for them and spy on radical Muslim clerics have led to speculation that this might have led him ultimately to become involved in Mr. Rigby’s murder. Allegations that his torture by Nigerian police, both physically and sexually, led to his involvement seems plausible, yet it jars perhaps since to be ‘pushed over the edge’ to do such as thing as Mr. Adebolajo did- if he is indeed the killer- seems a gross injustice to the heinousness of the act.


But it again reveals what a tricky situation intelligence services are in. From Walsingham to the Cold War, not letting the cat out of the bag too early whilst still trying to catch the criminal before they commit the act is one of the cardinal rules of secret and special intelligence. Once again, Rigby’s killer skirted around such bodies by not being part of something that allowed much, if any, surveillance. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, head of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC), has said that the committee will use new powers to force intelligence agencies to hand over all confidential documents relating to the case. This in itself shows how the intelligence services are still catching up with modern methods of anti-state and terrorist activities. Short of the accusation that the entire British secret service are still trapped in a sort of post-Cold War aspic, less in their technology and their understanding than in that their methods may still hold a sort of holistic, conglomerative view of their targets, it is clear that they need to move as fast as the people they are keeping tabs on, and faster if they want to stop these types of acts of terrorism.


But therein lies the problem: can any Government machine stop an act such as happened in Woolwich, or in Paris? Even Boston was a move from the conglomerative style of terrorism practiced during 9/11, and arguably even the 7/7 bombings, to a more personal, small-scale style of terrorism. The debate about what communities can do to stop young people from being taken in and radicalized effectively on their own streets bears much thinking about. The fight against terrorism is perhaps for the first time becoming, as well as a Government battle, also a fight of ideas: as Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation has said, stop the idea being fashionable, stop the idea being put into practice. This in itself is a simplification, but it’s true. All forms of extremism come from a sense that the world in which people exist is inherently unfair or biased towards a certain group of people. Eliminate that concept, and you eliminate extremism. Such a task, it feels, is more weighty than any one act, terrorist or not, can really reveal.


Stuart McMillan


Image Credit: Ministry of Defence