Foreign Policy Blogs

Governments Race to Delink Rigby Murder from Support for Free Syrian Army & al Nusra

Lee Rigby killing

Lee Rigby killing

Am I lucky or what? Made it through Heathrow, U.K. airport security, and onto the plane headed back for the U.S. a measly 48 hours before a British-born Islamic extremist of Nigerian extraction drove his car over a British soldier outside the Woolwich Artillery Barracks and then tried to hack the victim’s head off with a rusty meat cleaver. Across the pond, before the U.K. went into shock, and Cameron’s government into an emergency meeting designed to address what common-sense suggests might be the response of the British people: rage and retaliation.


News outlets switched into mob control mode: another case of “self-radicalization.” The British Muslim Council immediately condemned the act; government spokesmen (Cameron: “It will make us stronger”) pulled out the old chestnut about “the ability of the British people to rebound from the most devastating attacks” (Obama’s version–“America can absorb another hit”), and talking heads on both sides of the Atlantic went in to non-stop speculation about the “lone wolf” aspects of the attack (read “non-state”), and whether the event — during which the perpetrator, Michael Adebolajo (reportedly a “bright and witty student”) kept shouting “Allahu Akbar” — could even be classified as a “terrorist attack,” given its apparently “non-networked” nature and origins.

If a British citizen of Nigerian descent is converted to radical jihad via the internet, the argument goes, it’s nobody’s fault but his.


Of Confederate extraction myself, I seem to recall the onus linked to the dastardly actions of one John Wilkes Booth, another “lone wolf” of sorts, whose assassination of Lincoln was deemed the work of the defeated Confederacy as a whole, and of every Southerner in particular.

Nobody seemed to question the link between Booth and the Confederacy/the South on that occasion.

"The Conspirator" - Mary Surratt

“The Conspirator” – Mary Surratt

“We” assassinated the President, and anyone who’s seen Robin Wright Penn’s performance in the film “The Conspirator” (highly recommended), knows that the U.S. government arrested anyone it could claim was even remotely associated with Booth’s murder of the president, and that the “conspirators” were hanged at the behest of a military (not civilian) court — even Mary Surratt, the mother of a Booth associate who operated the Washington, DC boarding house where the ideologically-driven Booth sometimes held meetings.

Her attorney’s attempt to appeal and obtain retrial in a civilian court was unthinkable, said the victorious and grieving U.S. government. The nation needed revenge.

Deconstructing Political Reality

How times (and politics) have changed. Immediately after the killing of 25-year-old Lee Rigby, 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron couldn’t get in front of the cameras fast enough to proclaim that “Islamic extremism and Islam are not the same thing.”

Maybe not. But is the distinction sufficiently relevant — as attacks by extremists on European and US soil increase — to keep victim populations at bay, both physically and politically?

Western governments are hoping the linguistic divide will hold, that the appeal to reason will override ancient impulses and allow the U.S., the U.K. and its EU allies to keep playing the Cold War chess game aimed at diminishing Russia’s influence in the Middle East and sustaining, for the U.S., the feedback loop that sends U.S. greenbacks for oil to the Gulf nations in return for big US defense contracts. Too many investors, the defense industry, the big oil companies, the political parties in thrall to both, have dogs in this fight — a commitment to the status quo.

And then there’s payola.

Let’s not forget this is a blog about organized crime.

Like the drug gangs who shot it out in New Orleans after Katrina to protect their “turf,” which was suddenly underwater, or the competing cartels in Mexico slaughtering one another over distribution routes, or the Five Families, the Mafia in New York, whose number one rule was to take it and keep it, even if that meant internecine warfare at predictable intervals, governments and the industries and special interests they represent are, as cynics and K Street lobbyists both know, in it for the money. Turf is money.

As a result, no matter what your lying eyes might tell you, Washington and Whitehall disagree: We are not under attack. The 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, 3000+ dead at the Twin Towers, the Boston Marathon Bombings, Benghazi, the savage killing outside Woolwich Barracks — all anomalies, random, the work of “non-state,” “delinked,” insignificant actors.


Then there are other voices.

Anjum Chaudhry, the former head of the radical group al-Muhajiroun, had another narrative to share with Newsnight, a U.K. broadcast, and the mainstream U.S. press: “There is a war taking place, and it is irresponsible of Cameron to say that the Woolwich attacks have no link to Islam.”

Even Michael Adebolajo, Lee Rigby’s killer outside the Woolwich Barracks in South London, clearly anticipated efforts on the part of the government to minimize his actions and redefine his attack as the work of an unhinged Islamic wannabee — as opposed to a deliberate jihadist strike against western interventionism in the Muslim world.

How do we know?

It’s on tape, people.

Adebolajo and his partner wait for the police to arrive. They encourage onlookers to videotape the killing. Adebolajo volunteers “interviews” during which the killers specifically links the killing, as it proceeds, to U.K. and U.S. policy in the Middle East, cites jihadist ideology, and warns that “It will not be the politicians who will be punished…it will be the average guy and your children.”

How specific a link (or a threat) do we need?

Consider John Wilkes Booth’s parting words as he lept onto the stage at Ford’s Theater — “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” What he said was what he meant, and his announcement in front of a packed audience was designed to link Booth’s attack to a specific political ideology.

Hanging-Mary-Surratt-1Booth and his small band of co-conspirators may not have been tied operationally to a larger organization — the Confederate government had unconditionally surrendered — but it was its principles and beliefs, its ideological commitment, that drove Booth’s actions.

No “delinking.” Grant and the U.S. Congress, via a swift and questionable military tribunal, gave the people what their instincts demanded.

But that was before the global marketplace. Before governments became only one of the many players who take turns today at deconstructing political reality.

Defining “Delinked”

From another U.K. press report:

Maajid Nawaz, a former Islamist now with the London-based Quilliam anti-extremism think tank in London, said the video and emerging details indicated the men had been inspired by al-Qaida even though they may not have been directed by any specific affiliate to attack the soldier. “There is always mood music playing before these attacks happen,” Nawaz told the AP. “In this instance, I’m not saying they are operationally linked to al-Qaida, but these men clearly felt an affinity to this global jihadist zeitgeist. And they wouldn’t have had to have visited any foreign countries for this ideology to have resonated with them.”

And of course, we now know MI-5 had Adebolajo and his cohort on a worry list of Islamic suspects — but, given the number of folks on the list and the limited resources of UK law enforcement, the agency was unable to focus on “the periphery.” (As the U.S. president told us in his recent speech, “the war on terror must come to an end.”) In other words, in hard economic times, progressive governments cut support for “hard power,” to maintain “soft power” — the bureaucracies that support negotiation, ongoing diplomacy, and positive commercial relationship-building with old and new allies.

The report continues:

Security officials have been worried over the recent increase of men seeking training and fighting opportunities in countries such as Syria, Somalia and Yemen. Dozens of British men and women are said to have been radicalized by US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, the militant leader who was killed in a 2011 US drone strike in Yemen.

The same article highlights the growing importance of the social media to Islamic extremists, internet apps now functioning as a ‘hub’–a organizational and informational center–for disparate cells and ready recruits.

Virtual Cells?

Al Qaeda typically depends on the use of isolated “cells” — planning cells, logistical cells, operational cells charged with actually implementing an attack on European or U.S. soil — each reporting separately, like spokes in a wheel, to a central hub or “managerial cell” whose only purpose is coordination. This central cell or single manager generally possesses little information about the identities, aims, or future plans of higher ups back in the Middle East.

Jihadist websites are ideal substitutes for these managerial cells — anonymous electronic catalysts designed to rake in recruits wherever they might surface and provide them with the information (pressure cooker bombs) they need to implement an attack. The point is that there are people behind these sites with a specific agenda and methods. Are these websites a link in an operational chain?

This is not a trick question.

A Twitter account used by members of Somalia’s al-Shabab militant group made a lengthy post Thursday about the attack in Woolwich. The Twitter account referenced the video in which the bloodied suspect called the attack “an eye for an eye.” The tweet said the British army had a “woeful record of abuses” against Muslims worldwide.

In a recent national security speech, President Obama told Congress and the American people that “al Qaeda is on the run.” That hits in Pakistan have decimated the organization. The response from Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee was immediate: John McCain, unusually diplomatic in his choice of words, indicated that the President’s assessment is “distanced from reality.”

The sectarian rampage across the Middle East, say some analysts, represents proxy conflicts via Shi’a and Sunni extremist groups, warring factions whose imams, with the injection of arms provided by the U.S. and the EU, have transformed religion into the methamphetamine of the people.

These same imams, or ruling clergy in the case of the Sunnis, say intelligence insiders, are not driven solely by theological fervor — their political patrons pay them to divert the anger and frustration of the masses away from the inability or unwillingness of their governments to share the wealth, and to instead focus their rage on the infidel, the “Great Satan” that is the West.

The West protects the Gulf states — moderate, secular, business-minded allies — who, in turn, provide power and payola to the Islamic clerics who’ve convinced their impoverished and illiterate followers that the West, with its capitalist agenda and pro-Israeli policies, is the enemy.

The Problem

Here it is. Today, these same impoverished and illiterate followers have big guns and the ability to travel anywhere they choose. They’re technologically savvy and “connected” to criminal organizations willing to supply them anything for the right price.

In the U.S., neo-cons and Cold War strategists have been lobbying non-stop for military aid to Syria. The EU has just voted not to renew the arms embargo on weapons to Syria. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, has announced Moscow is sending the S300 anti-aircraft missile system to Assad’s government. Hezbollah fighters out of Lebanon are lending muscle to Assad’s Shi’a forces.

And Senator John Kerry, our new and enthusiastic Secretary of State, has eloquently proclaimed that “the US is on the side of the Syrian people, and the Syrian opposition (FSA), large-writ, is on the side of the Syrian people.”

Wow. “Large-writ.” I think there’s a speechwriter somewhere at State who deserves a raise.

The fact is — and New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard has already said it — that “our side,” the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has been hijacked by extremist brigades (the al-Nusra Brigade has openly announced its official affiliation with al Qaeda Iraq), and a growing number of analysts on both sides of the Atlantic fear that an FSA victory will trigger a bloodbath that may be more savage than current government atrocities: the wholesale slaughter of Christians, Shi’a/Alawites, and Druze.

The Big Gamble

So, here’s the question: Is U.S. support in the Middle East a lose-lose proposition?

Is this a war, like Afghanistan, that we might do better NOT to win?

John Kerry says the larger umbrella operation tagged the FSA, under the “moderate” leadership of people like General Idris, can reign in the extremist brigades, and with our support, reinvent Syria as a stable US ally.

Worry not.

This won’t be Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Pakistan, where U.S. soldiers have as much to fear from the troops fighting with us as they do from “the enemy.” Where U.S. weapons are used against U.S. troops. Moderate Syrian leaders in the FSA will prevail. Darwin is wrong. History is mistaken.

Think again. Critics say the lapsed EU arms embargo, Moscow’s provision of anti-aircraft missiles to Assad, the fiery rhetoric from the U.S. and U.K. in support of the FSA (whose leaders have inserted a comic footnote into the process by refusing to attend “negotiation meetings,” amenable even to the Russians, unless the U.S. provides them with the anti-aircraft weapons we “promised them”) will only lend fuel to the present Syrian conflict, trigger a larger regional debacle (“spill-over”), and drag the West (the U.S.) into closer confrontation with Moscow.

So much for Obama’s declaration that “all wars have to end.”

Sunni leaders, most notably Saudi Arabia, are digging in, muscling patrons in the U.S. and Europe to provide the FSA with heavy combat artillery and missile systems. The Gulf States are betting on the self-interest of their Western partners, the political club that is cheap, always-available oil, and the political clout that U.S. and European defense manufacturers continue to wield.

The odds are with them.

There’s also that western commitment to eliminating the threat posed by Iran and our no-way-out alliance with Israel.

Europe is heavily dependent on OPEC oil, so the disappearance of the EU embargo is no surprise, but the real wild card in the debate — after years of talk about our intractable need for Saudi crude — is the announcement by the IEA that North American oil will dominate supply within the next five years.

An incredible revelation. And the first pushback against OPEC.

Sounds to me like there may be a Plan B in the offing. An understanding, perhaps, that the citizens of the U.S. (and maybe even the U.K.) might have a limited tolerance for the “random” attacks of Islamic jihadists determined, it seems, to make their identities and motives perfectly clear.

What North American domination of the oil supply will mean to OPEC, Aramco, and the oil barons in the Middle East is a question not many people seem to be pondering right now. U.S. advocates for continuing intervention in the Middle East warn that billion-dollar defense contracts that now belong to the U.S. will go to China. Maybe.

But what the gruesome murder of 25-year-old Lee Rigby tells us is not only that we are, indeed, at war, but that the cost, escalating as Sunni versus Shi’a sectarianism spreads across the Middle East, will almost certainly be more than the American people, the “average guy,” are willing to pay.



Kathleen Millar

Kathleen Millar began her career in public affairs working for Lyn Nofziger, White House Communications Director. She has gone on to write about a wide range of enforcement and security issues for DHS, for the US Department of the Treasury (Customs & Border Patrol), for Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), then a Member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and for top law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad.

A Founding Member of the Department of Homeland Security, Millar was also the deputy spokesperson-senior writer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria. She has authored numerous speeches, articles and opeds under her own and client bylines, and her work, focusing on trafficking, terrorism, border and national security, has appeared in both national and international outlets, including The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The International Herald Tribune, The Financial Times, and Vital Speeches of the Day.

Kathleen Millar holds an MA from Georgetown University and was the recipient of a United Nations Fellowship, International Affairs, Oxford. She is a member of the Georgetown University Alumni Association, Women in International Security (GU), the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, and the American News Women’s Club in Washington, DC. Kathleen Millar is currently teaching and writing about efforts to combat transnational organized crime.