Some things change, some stay the same. For the first time in eight years, after the London bombings of July 7, 2005, a British citizen has been killed on British soil in a radical extremist attack -- this time in the gruesome slaying of an off-duty soldier in southeast London on May 22. Video footage of the bloodstained perpetrators and multiple eyewitness accounts suggest British citizens were again guilty of the crime. In both cases, the attackers' motivations were expressed in the language of religion -- specifically, Islam.
But much has changed since that July morning when Britain was horrifically awakened to the world of post-9/11 domestic terrorism. The 2005 bombings were suicide attacks in which the perpetrators killed themselves and 52 others, injuring approximately 700 more. If nothing else, the human cost was quantitatively less in the attack this week -- and the perpetrators did not take their own lives. In 2005, moreover, the bombings were relatively well coordinated, hitting four separate targets in different parts of London. In comparison, the murder of Lee Rigby near his barracks in Woolwich would have required exceedingly little in the way of planning. As tragic -- and as sensational -- as his murder was, it was not a repeat of the 7/7 bombings.
In the aftermath of the bombings, I served as deputy convener for the British Home Office's working group on "tackling extremism and radicalization." Our findings identified multiple motivating factors that appear to be present whenever a terrorist attack takes place: radical ideology, opposition to British foreign policy, and identity-based or socioeconomic grievances. These factors vary from person to person -- and their relative importance to a given attack often fluctuates -- but their role in any terrorist attack is almost a foregone conclusion. Despite the fact that these factors continue to exist in Britain, however, the country has not experienced any attacks on the scale of the 7/7 bombings. In fact, the real story of the May 22 attack seems to be its low-tech execution and apparent lack of preparation.
Over the coming days and weeks, the British public will probably be animated by discussions of whether or not this was even a terrorist attack -- a debate that ultimately will be settled in a court of law, but has not halted senior politicians from drawing their own conclusions. That decision will not be without consequence, as there are specific legal provisions that apply to terrorism that could drastically affect sentencing in any trial. The definition of terrorism under the relevant provisions in English law would seem to apply to this case, but again, that will be for a judge to decide.
The discussion will not end there, though. British society at large -- and its elected politicians -- will need to decide if the current definition makes sense -- or whether knifing someone on the street ought to be treated as murder regardless of the motive. Indeed, the most similar incident in recent memory was last month's stabbing by a suspect of Caucasian origin of a Pakistani man in Birmingham. The police have not ruled out the possibility of racial motivation in that case, but it was not reported as a terrorist attack. Accordingly, the incident was treated as a simple police matter -- far from warranting a special cabinet session chaired by the prime minister.
While the words "terrorism" and "terrorist" are often flung around liberally by the news media, they have been used far more sparingly in legal terms. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, only 107 convicts in Britain have been classified as "terrorists" under English law -- and herein lies some good news. Since 9/11, more than 2,000 people have been arrested under legislation pertaining to terrorism in Britain; of those, 312 were convicted of terrorism-related offenses, including murder, illegal possession of firearms, and explosives offenses, and the rest were convicted of non-terrorism related offenses or released. Since the 7/7 attacks in 2005, there have been many more terrorist plots on British soil, but they have all been foiled, with the would-be perpetrators not only being halted, but convicted through the legal process.