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Post-Woolwich, what should we be watching out for?

By Mark Wallace
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WoolwichThe full details of yesterday's horrific murder in Woolwich, and the terrorists who carried it out, are yet to be revealed. With both suspects alive and in custody, albeit undergoing treatment for gunshot wounds, there is a reasonable prospect that we will learn a lot more in the coming weeks about their motivations, possible links to other individuals or groups and so on.

It's therefore too early to give a definitive answer as to how the various arms of government should respond. Broad areas that require our attention are emerging, though.

"Known to the security services"

The Prime Minister has now confirmed that both suspects were "known to the security services". This could mean a lot of things - Whitehall sources are reportedly emphasising that they were seen as "peripheral" figures in extremist circles, something we heard after the 7/7 attacks as an explanation of why some of those involved appeared in the files but were still able to perpetrate an atrocity.

It is an inherent risk in counter-terrorism operations that someone who seems a minor figure may actually become a perpetrator having been put on a low priority list by the security services. As the IRA said after the Brighton bombing, "Today we were unlucky, but remember we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always."

There are other allegations circulating, though, that if true should raise concerns about exactly what you have to do to become a person of interest. Allegedly, at least one of the men may have been prevented from leaving the country recently, due to suspicions he intended to join the Al Qaeda-aligned Al Shabbab fighting in Somalia.

If that is indeed the case, then it would mean the police felt they had sufficient evidence that he intended to join a violent, Islamist terrorist movement. Would that not suggest he might be a risk in this country, too?

The balance of freedom

Understandably, after such attacks there is always a discussion about whether our freedoms before the law should be scaled back. As Big Brother Watch reports, Lord Reid and a few others have already started attempting to force changes of policy which would further restrict the civil liberties of the innocent.

I wrote recently about my expectation that there will be renewed attempts in the near future to reintroduce the Snoopers' Charter. I sincerely hope yesterday's awful events won't be used as the excuse to do so, but the last decade or more of freedom being eroded in the name of security has not made me a natural optimist on the tactics of some securocrats.

In fact, the days immediately after an attack are precisely the wrong time to consider such important questions. Not only do we not know anywhere near enough to properly analyse the case - but the events are so raw in our minds that we would do better to leave fundamental questions of how the individual, the security services and the law interact to a time when we are able to give them the balanced, reasoned assessment they deserve

Tackling the causes of extremism...

Paul wrote this morning about the importance of grasping that such events are ultimately rooted in ideology, a problem requiring the kind of complex, long-hard-slog attention that is sure to depress any minister looking for swift headlines.

Simply treating the symptoms (be it by arming all police officers or tapping all our phones) is clearly inferior to addressing the cause.

Studying the lives, and radicalisation processes, of the two suspects will prove invaluable to planning the government's future policies. But it should also be used to identify any failings in policy over the years since the attack on the Twin Towers.

If, as Anjem Choudary is quoted as saying in the Standard, one of the men was a regular attendee of Al Muhajiroun extremist events, questions must be asked about our policy of proscription. AM is a banned organisation, but the ban hasn't really worked if the brand name was dropped but young men in its loose network continued on their dangerous path in that or another organisation.

As Paul said earlier, DCLG still has not published a counter-extremism policy. Correcting that must surely become a priority whatever the details of what went on in Woolwich. 

...and not just Islamist extremism

A particularly troubling element of yesterday's murderous attack is the apparent intention to cause damage far beyond the horrific assault on the victim. In recent decades, various terrorist movements have taken pride in the level of disruption they have been able to cause through inspiring suspicion, forcing authorities to introduce extra layers of security and in some cases overturning government policies.

The Woolwich terrorists appear to have wanted to go a step further - they wanted to start a war in Britain by setting different religions and racial groups against each other. The hooligans of the English Defence League did their best to oblige by showing up near the scene last night, even going as far as trying to attack local mosques. Fortunately they were fewer in number and less well organised than they might have been.

Such attempts to use terror tactics to provoke retaliation by opposing groups of extremists are, sadly, likely to become more common - particularly given the high level of publicity achieved this time. If that approach was to succeed, it would cause largescale chaos, devastating social division and potentially far more fatalities than the attack which acts as the match lighting its fuse. 

This means government agencies should be working not only on how to catch Islamist extremists, and not only how to prevent Islamist radicalisation, but also on counteracting extremism in the EDL and other movements. Both sides would love to have a proper set-to, into which they could drag parts of the wider population - it is essential our security services and others stand between the two.


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