You will no doubt have heard about the brutal and atrocious killing of a soldier outside a British army base on Wednesday. According to witnesses, the two perpetrators used a car to run him over outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, South East London, before setting upon him with knives and meat cleavers and attempting to behead him. Both were then shot by police, but remain alive and currently under armed guard in hospital.
This sickening attack has been described by the British government and the media in general as a terrorist killing. Indeed the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, called a meeting of the British government’s terrorist committee, COBRA, and said that Britain will “never buckle in the face of terrorism.” The claim has also been made that the attack bore “all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda.”
Was this actually a terrorist attack? Well, much depends on your definition of terrorism, but using a generally accepted definition of the term – “the systematic use of violence and intimidation to achieve a goal” – it is difficult to see how it could be, at least at this stage. For an attack to be classed as terrorism, you would need to show not just that the perpetrators had some political or religious grievance, but that they belonged to an organization with some political or religious grievance, a defined set of goals, means of funding and recruiting, and maybe even a stash of weapons. It remains to be seen at this stage whether those who carried out this senseless attack fit into this category, but the manner in which it was carried out and the weapons used strongly suggests that their actions were not part of some sort of organized and coordinated campaign. Sure, they clearly had a political and religious grievance, but was what they did actually part of an orchestrated and systematic organization?
The British government and the world’s media clearly think it was, which is where the claim that the attack bears all the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda comes in. This is the now standard line wheeled out by governments and the media every time a killing takes place where the perpetrators happen to be members of the “peaceful” religion. There is a reason they do this, which I’ll come to in a moment, but is there actually any truth in the claim? What exactly is meant by “the hallmarks of Al-Qaeda?”
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