At around 14:00 on Wednesday 23 May a serving solider in plain clothes was murdered by two would-be jihadists outside a barracks in Woolwich, south-east London. The attackers seem initially to have run the victim over, crashing their car in the process, before assaulting him with a variety of bladed weapons. They then dragged the body into the road and harangued passers-by, many of whom clustered thinking that there had been a traffic accident. Armed police arrived after twenty minutes and were immediately engaged by the attackers, one of whom had a pistol. Both were shot and wounded, subsequently being arrested and taken to separate hospitals.
The political motivation for the attack was revealed during the attackers’ bizarre walkaround, during which the most vocal of the two made numerous statements regarding the legitimacy of killing soldiers “who kill Muslims in our lands” and asked to be filmed. He has subsequently been identified as Michael Adelbolajo, who our sources indicate converted to Islam between 2001 and 2003, at which time he assumed an Islamic name related to jihad. His quieter colleague has not been identified but we believe that both are of northern Nigerian descent, albeit Michael is British (with a very strong South London accent).
This is the first successful terror plot on the UK mainland since the impromptu (and desperate) attack on Glasgow airport in 2007, and the first in which someone has died since 2005. That said, the level of tactical sophistication of this plot is very low and we do not at this time assess any wider or more formal operational connection to other cells, albeit both were reportedly known to the security services. We also do not believe that the pair received any training and the simplicity and lack of connections probably helped the attackers avoid interdiction. Therefore, although the nature of jihadist networks means that influence linkages may be uncovered as investigations continue, we counsel against too much being read into any potential connections at this stage.
It is notable that members of the public were not attacked despite offering easier targets – instead the police and Army were the sole objectives. Adelbolajo stated that the act was in relation to general Western/British military intervention in Muslim lands, reflecting a jihadist justification for similar previous plots in the UK, US and France over the last six years (including the attempted jihadist killing of a Muslim reservist in the West Midlands). We assess targeting of soldiers remains likely in all these countries, given recent trends.
Given ethnicity we consider that the attackers may well have been partially influenced by Boko Haram in Nigeria, which is increasingly embracing the pan-Islamic caliphate approach championed by al-Qaeda, although other jihadist messages may also have had an impact and we do not see firm alignment with any particular group based on current evidence.
Tactically, it is important to note that the attackers had one, “rusty”, pistol (which may have exploded when fired) and limited ammunition, hence resorting to bladed weapons even when confronting armed police. This shows how ammunition controls continue to limit the likelihood of armed jihadist attacks. However, since the soldier attacked was in plain clothes – and the car approached him from the opposite direction to the barracks gate – the attackers must have employed a degree of reconnaissance, and we consider that this underlines the importance of low-level vigilance. Indeed this is perhaps further reinforced by the fact that only the most low-level and unsophisticated plots are now likely to evade the security and intelligence services, meaning that tactical situational awareness remains a primary form of defence.
Given the timing, it is possible that the Boston Marathon attacks – which similarly saw two individuals manage to strike under the radar – were an influence on Adelbolajo and his colleague (notably, these also saw a similar lack of post-event planning by the assailants). In turn this incident may encourage others by showing that the security services are not omnipotent, and we therefore believe that the danger of copycat attacks is heightened through the summer - particularly given the potential distraction caused by the G8 leaders’ conference. Moreover, we have repeatedly warned of the growing influence and potential of African jihadists (see our last report), and in our view continuing turmoil in northern Nigeria and the Maghreb continues to heighten the possibility of further attacks from this quarter.