A Murder in Woolwich

Was the brutal south London killing of a British soldier actually an act of terrorism?

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.

Britain now must identify the roots of what happened on May 22, an exercise that will ultimately necessitate difficult policy choices. In 2005, three areas of particular importance had already been identified: religious radicalization, rejection of certain foreign policies, and social isolation or other socioeconomic grievances. All of these were widely accepted within the security services, police force, and larger professional counterterrorism sector -- but each was handled with varying degrees of seriousness, and not without counter-productive measures.

In subsequent years, the first factor, radicalization, was certainly taken a lot more seriously inside and outside of government. But it's not clear how much this actually achieved. This is particularly the case when one considers that the radical ideology that animates terrorists is not being taught in religious institutions in Britain, but outside of the country entirely. The predominant opinion in the British security establishment is that the key sources for such radical ideas are not within local mosques -- but via the borderless Internet from preachers that do not reside in Britain. Demanding that Muslim British institutions "take the war to the extremists" might be an attractive fix, but it fails to recognize where the problems actually lie -- and how solutions might be found. Indeed, such institutions are essentially irrelevant to this discussion, as they have little or no impact, positive or negative, on radical extremists at present.

Coupling security paradigms with socioeconomic factors proved even less helpful. The government's PREVENT strategy, which was supposed to neutralize potential radicalizing forces, actually undermined both security and community cohesion by conflating the two, confusing the priorities within each, and leading to a more securitized public discourse vis-à-vis Muslim communities. Years on, those communities in Britain are increasingly vilified in mainstream media and public discourse -- and not just by far-right pundits. Anti-Muslim rhetoric can even turn deadly: We know, for example, that Anders Breivik was moved to massacre people in Norway two years ago by exactly this kind of discourse. Likewise, it is entirely possible that the killing of Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham may have been motivated by a similar ideology as well.

The issue of foreign policy is a little more controversial to be sure, but in 2010, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the former director general of MI5, declared to Parliament: "Our involvement in Iraq radicalized, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young people -- not a whole generation, a few among a generation -- who saw our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as being an attack upon Islam." The videos of the 7/7 bombers, as well as the callous videotaped confession of the attacker on Wednesday, bear out that at least in their minds, they were acting in response to unjustifiable British action against Muslim communities overseas. That kind of sentiment is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon, and may serve to animate, rightly or not, others in the future. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done to prevent that.

As problematic as the official response to the 7/7 bombings has been, it appears that at least one lesson has been learned since then: Investigations into such attacks must be approached with full and total transparency in order to minimize the risk of them happening again. In the aftermath of the 7/7 attacks, the British government resisted all efforts to launch an official public inquiry into the conduct of the country's security services. Eventually, an inquest was held, but without covering all aspects of the circumstances leading to the bombings. This time, however, the government appears to be acting more quickly, immediately announcing a House of Commons inquiry after it emerged that the two men arrested in connection with the May 22 attack had been known to MI5 for eight years; one man is being questioned by the police after revealing on the BBC that the suspect told him MI5 tried to recruit him at one point. When one considers that one suspect, Michael Adebolajo, was apparently best friends with a British soldier, seemingly without any conflict, one really has to ask: "What happened?"

There is indeed a radical religious interpretation at work in inspiring and motivating young men to carry out such deeds -- that should not be underestimated. Yet, there are also other factors that need to be recognized in order to be appropriately dealt with. Whether it was a terrorist act or not in terms of legal definition matters less than ensuring that British society at large comes through this episode intact, and refuses to allow radical ideologues to direct the British collective response. That is, after all, precisely what radical extremists desire -- to restructure and redefine how Britons live. They cannot be allowed to win.  

National Security

Shutter Island

Why does Obama think it will be easier to close Gitmo this time?

In January 2009, President Barack Obama signed three executive orders on detention policy, including one directing Guantanamo Bay's closure. Yesterday, after struggling to meet that goal for four years, he called once again for shuttering the island detention facility, as part of a broader shift in U.S. counterterrorism policy to a sustainable, long-term framework that relies less on military power and more on diplomacy, development, intelligence, and law enforcement.

What's changed in four years to make that outcome more likely, such that the president would once again stake his prestige and power on Guantanamo Bay? Quite a bit, it turns out, and those changes may mean the difference between the failure to close Guantanamo in his first term, when I served as a political appointee responsible for detainee policy at the Pentagon, and success in doing so now.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, both candidates said they would end detention at Guantanamo Bay. In March 2008, Sen. John McCain told a Los Angeles audience that "we should close Guantanamo" because "[w]e must fight the terrorists and at the same time defend the rights that are the foundation of our society. We can't torture or treat inhumanely suspected terrorists we have captured." Then-Sen. Barack Obama repeatedly said "we're going to close Guantanamo" and make other reforms to U.S. detention policy, including granting habeas corpus rights to detainees and reforming military commissions. These statements echoed earlier promises by President George W. Bush to close the much-criticized facility, and less visible planning to do so by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his staff.

Unfortunately, this consensus vanished almost as soon as President Obama signed his executive orders in January 2009. The Republican Party came out swinging, led by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who sharply criticized the new president's detention policy, declassification of Justice Department torture memoranda, and other national security moves. Congressional Republicans championed a series of bills starting in May 2009 that increasingly restricted the president's power to transfer detainees to the United States for prosecution, transfer detainees abroad, or construct new domestic detention facilities. These GOP tactics were aided by congressional Democrats who said they could not afford the political cost of bringing detainees to the United States, even for prosecution in federal court or continued detention by the Pentagon in a super-secure facility. And these legislative obstacles worked because congressional power to limit expenditures is nearly absolute. Without appropriated funds, our efforts to transfer, prosecute, or incarcerate detainees elsewhere ground to a halt.

Today, though, the calculation should be different. For one thing, the United States no longer has more than 100,000 troops in Iraq, and it is dramatically reducing the number of troops it has in Afghanistan. That should mollify concerns about detainee recidivism and the extent to which releasing detainees could put our troops at risk from future attacks by Guantanamo alumni.

The public has also grown weary of the cost of the post-9/11 wars, in which Guantanamo has been buried as a very expensive line item, costing billions of dollars since its opening in 2002. When the Afghanistan war winds down in 2014, there will remain little appetite for the continued deployment of thousands of troops to Guantanamo Bay as guards, interrogators, medical personnel, and support troops, especially for a dwindling detainee population. We called this the "Rudolf Hess" problem in the Pentagon, a reference to the Nazi leader whose continued detention until his death in 1987 required operation of an entire prison.

Additionally, the combination of U.S. raids, airstrikes (including those by drones), and efforts by allied military and intelligence agencies in Afghanistan and Pakistan have transformed al Qaeda from a network planning future attacks to a network struggling to survive. In the words of James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, our efforts have "degraded core al Qaeda to a point that the group is probably unable to carry out complex, large-scale attacks in the West." U.S. and allied forces have also substantially degraded al Qaeda's franchises in Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. The results of this successful offensive strategy, coupled with aggressive law enforcement and homeland security efforts at home, are clear: no large-scale attacks since 9/11 and many fewer attacks abroad as well. Consequently, as the president said, we are now able to see the point at which the current war will end, and the United States can transition to a post-war counterterrorism strategy that relies less on military force.

In 2009, when I served at the Pentagon, we carefully reviewed every detainee's case and made judgments about which detainees could be released, transferred, or prosecuted -- as well as those we recommended for further detention. A council of senior officials from several agencies (including political appointees and national security professionals from the civil service) made these decisions on the merits of each detainee's case before coming to a decision. (These decisions were ultimately ratified by the deputies and principals committees of the National Security Council, and published by the Justice Department in 2010.)

However, in many cases, we could not act on these recommendations because of the risk that some detainee might pose after release or transfer. Often this perception of risk rested on a judgment that the situation in Yemen, Afghanistan, or some other location was precarious, or the judgment that al Qaeda would be strengthened by the addition of its former operatives. We had to balance the president's 2009 directive to close Guantanamo with the imperative to keep al Qaeda on the ropes, and to do no harm to broader U.S. strategic interests in places like Yemen and Afghanistan. This tension grew with each event like the failed Christmas Day 2009 airliner bombing, and the broader metastasis of al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula. Congressional restrictions passed starting in 2009 required the secretary of defense to certify that detainees would pose no risk to U.S. interests after they left Guantanamo. In this uncertain environment, neither the secretary nor the administration could make such a certification.

Judging by his remarks yesterday, President Obama believes this risk calculus has changed. "Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations," including U.S. counterterrorism strikes using drones and special operations forces, will continue for a time, he said. "But this war, like all wars, must end." And with it will end the legal authority to keep detainees under the laws of armed conflict for fear they may return to a hot battlefield to fight against us once again.

Ultimately, closing Guantanamo Bay will require transferring its occupants to the United States or other countries, including places where the security situation may still be tenuous. The decision to accept the risks inherent in those transfers is one that only the president -- the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and the only elected member of the chain of command -- can make. It is a courageous political decision, given the record of recidivism to date. But I believe it is the right decision, and the only thing that can enable Guantanamo to eventually close.