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A Death in London and Extremism Within

A Death in London and Extremism Within

Drummer Lee Rigby, Ministry of Defence

A colorful mosaic of flower petals brightens an otherwise grim corner in the Woolwich section of London.  Its mirror image rests outside a quiet home in Middleton, Greater Manchester.  Each bouquet serves as a worthy tribute to both the beautifully adorned uniform of an Army Drummer and the character of a young man who filled it out.  Lee Rigby wished to be a soldier from boyhood – a dream realized seven years ago when he completed his course at the Infantry Training Centre in Yorkshire’s Catterick garrison.  Tours of duty in Cyprus, Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand Province and Germany followed, dotted in between by stints with the Corps of Drums outside royal palaces and the Tower of London.  He married and had a son, Jack, now two years old.  His family and comrades of 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers describe him as witty, an adoring father and a protective brother to his sisters.

Now a police guard stands outside of that Manchester home, watching that mosaic at the curb of the Rigby family residence grow as his identity is more widely acknowledged.

Sometimes, in the course of dissecting an act of terror, the names and faces of the fallen slip away as suspects are pursued and profiled, with motives peeled away like onions by a feverish media and a counterterrorism community searching for the preventative lessons to learn.  It’s times like these when it’s important to start with the story of a decent young man rather than leap straight away into a discussion of the accused and the implications of their mania.

The gruesome death of Drummer Rigby on a mid-day London street has, with good reason, startled Britain and the world in equal measure.  The image of Michael Adebolajo shouting down the lens of a mobile phone camera, pacing with bloodied hands, a cleaver and knife swinging loosely from one of them, has sufficiently made the viral rounds.  Almost instantly, U.K. newspaper online discussion forums were flooded with angry commentaries on the underbelly of British immigration policy – only to discover in short order that Adebolajo was in fact British-born and Christian-raised.  His radical Islamist views were fostered in-country, not on foreign soil.

What happened in Woolwich brings into focus an area of growing alarm in Britain’s national security dialogue – a second generation of fanatical youth.  The U.K. has long harbored enormous pride in its embrace of human rights and civil liberties protections. This, coupled with the gates of human mobility opened by the European Union, made London and other large cities in Britain multicultural hubs.  But pride can often be tinged with pain.  In the decades before the 9/11 and 7/7 attacks, London became a beacon of refuge for Middle Eastern and North African extremist groups fleeing the oppression of home governments.  Radical preachers exploited law to create high-profile platforms for anti-Western hate speech.  In 2010, a rash of jihadist groups were banned from operating in Britain, but MI5 is still overwhelmed by the volume of potential terrorists on its radar.

A Death in London and Extremism Within

Image Credit: The Mirror (UK)

Adebolajo was on that radar long before he and an alleged on-site accomplice, Michael Adebowale, struck Rigby down in such a horrendous manner on Wednesday.  Adebolajo has an extensive history of participation in jihadist rallies and sought mentorship under controversial cleric Anjem Choudary.  Fearing he’d join al-Shabaab, an offshoot of al-Qaeda, police intercepted him before a planned trip to Somalia.  In the days before the attack, he wailed about his own call to jihad not far from the scene of Rigby’s devastating murder.

His shift toward fanaticism seems rooted in his teens.  Now a man of nearly thirty, he is a shadow of the person his family and friends once knew – well-seasoned, and by now swallowed, by dangerous and misleading religious rhetoric.  So much of the conversation on immigration reform in Britain looks to extremist groups as examples of who to be wary of and who Britons don’t want to be responsible for accommodating.  Broadly, it’s a conversation questioning who’s allowed in rather than asking how the decades-old waves of problematic characters who are already there may have effectively contorted the minds of an impressionable crop of young people born on British lands.

Domestic terrorism is not unfamiliar to the U.K., nor is the concept of lone-wolf or small-pack terror cells.  But Abedolajo has reignited a national conversation about the contemporary profile of a potential terrorist.  The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, comprised of officers from MI5, MI6, the Government Communications Headquarters (commonly known as GCHQ, another intelligence agency) and the Ministry of Defence will meet to discuss a topic they may have little power to stop: the random, unsophisticated actions of untracked Britons on other Britons in the name of the collapse of the West.  There will probably be talks on how to manage any message related to the prevention of the unknown and how to placate undue pressure that places on Muslim enclaves in the capital, already unkindly slapped with the pejorative nickname, “Londonistan.” The Muslim Council of Britain rushed to condemn the killing and contain its potential damage to community relations.

How security agencies handle the next few weeks is critical.  As this post was written, two additional arrests had been made in rural England in connection with Rigby’s death.  There may be more.  A dutiful soldier mere feet from the safety of his barracks, clothed in a shirt bearing the logo of a wounded veterans charity was set upon in front of dozens by a caricature of anti-British radicalism basking in the attention of the internet era with a tell-tale South London accent.  It’s an event brimming with symbols for Britons to attach themselves to if the wider answers to a young man’s death go unsatisfactorily answered.



Sara Chupein-Soroka

Sara Chupein-Soroka is a former Program Associate at the Foreign Policy Association. She holds an M.S. in Global Affairs from New York University with a focus on U.S.-European relations, and a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College. Her graduate thesis examined U.S.-UK bilateral security relations (an ongoing project) and she undertook an in-field intensive at The Hague, Bosnia and Serbia examining transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia in 2011.