Public opinion in Britain and throughout the world was horrified by the murder of a soldier on the streets of Woolwich in South London. The gruesome images of a young man with bloodied hands, brandishing a kitchen knife and haranguing passers-by shook the entire nation to its foundations. Alan Woods analyses these recent shocking events and the possible ramifications for the labour movement.
Public opinion in Britain and throughout the world was horrified by the murder of a soldier on the streets of Woolwich in South London. The gruesome images of a young man with bloodied hands, brandishing a kitchen knife and haranguing passers-by shook the entire nation to its foundations.
Drummer Lee Rigby was first knocked down by a car and then dragged into the middle of the road and hacked to death with knives and a meat cleaver. More than an assassination, it was like an act of butchery. One witness said: they hacked at him like a piece of meat.” This took place in broad daylight, in the presence of ordinary people going about their daily business.
The assailants, Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, were shot and wounded by police at the scene in Woolwich on Wednesday after the killing. What was most surprising was that the attackers made no attempt to flee from the scene of the crime. They had plenty of time to do so, since the police response was pitifully slow. They could have easily escaped even on public transport, but they made no attempt to do so. On the contrary, they hung around, haranguing passers-by, whom they even asked to film them. Nobody else was attacked.
This is like the old idea of “propaganda of the deed.” They were making a statement – albeit a sickeningly bloody one. Probably, they expected to be shot dead by the police, thus becoming martyrs of the Jihad. But even this pathetic plan backfired. When the police marksmen finally appeared, the two would-be martyrs staged a suicidal charge and were duly shot down. But they survived and will live long enough to tell the tale.
The soldier they killed, Drummer Lee Rigby, was a 25-year old working class youngster from Manchester with a two-year-old son. He was due to see his family on leave that weekend. Instead, his distraught wife, parents and children were paraded before the television, where their raw expressions of grief further increased the public sense of revulsion.
The two men shot by police in Woolwich remain under heavy guard in hospital. Scotland Yard said they had also arrested a man and woman, both aged 29 on conspiracy to murder. But these have since been released on bail. This detail suggests that there could have been no firm evidence against them, which confirms the impression that Adebolajo and Adebowale had acted alone.
Was it an al Qaeda attack?
As soon as news of this atrocity was made public, the media began to speculate on al Qaeda involvement, although they also expressed concern about “home grown terrorism”. Attention was drawn to the fact that one of the killers clearly spoke with a south London accent. It subsequently emerged that both men were British but of Nigerian extraction. This news has caused a sensation in Nigeria, where many people were at pains to disassociate their country from this act.
The use of the phrase al Qaeda in connection with each and every terrorist act gives the impression of a remarkably well-organized Islamic world conspiracy, something that puts the old-fashioned Judeo-Communist-Masonic conspiracy quite in the shade.
After the end of the cold war the imperialists needed to find a new “external threat” for their propaganda and Islamic Fundamentalists fitted that profile quite well. In reality though, al Qaeda does not exist as the major operation it is portrayed as in the media. It is a convenient catch-all phrase that is intended to explain a whole series of explosive outbreaks in different parts of the world that are a convulsive reflection of deep social contradictions. It is an explanation that explains nothing.
There is in fact a growing Jihadi insurgency in the North of Nigeria, where the army is locked in a deadly war with the Islamic Movement Boko Haram. This bloody war is a reflection of deep-seated economic, social and political problems in Nigeria. It does not need to be explained by any external and foreign conspiracies. In any case, nobody has yet attempted to establish any connection between the perpetrators of the Woolwich atrocity and Nigeria, other than an accident of birth. But the image of a black man waving a knife with bloody hands on the streets of London is a most welcome sight for racists who wish to spread hatred against all non-white citizens of the UK.
If there was some kind of link with foreign Jihadis, it was not with Nigeria but with Somalia. It has emerged that both were already known to the security services. It seems that Michael Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya for attempting to cross the border into Somalia to join the Al-Shabaab Jihadi rebels. He claimed to have been tortured by the Kenyan police before they handed him over to British intelligence agents. The Foreign Office has confirmed that Michael Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya in 2010.
Michael AdebolajoAccording to a friend of Michael Adebolajo, the security services had tried to recruit him. Abu Nusaybah told BBC Newsnight that Adebolajo had informed him six months ago that the security service had been “knocking on his door”. He said Adebolajo had told him he had turned down an offer to work for them. Mr Nusaybah said that his friend was “basically being harassed by MI5”. In the interview he said: “His wording was, ‘They are bugging me – they won’t leave me alone.’
”He mentioned initially they wanted to ask him if he knew certain individuals. But after him saying that he didn’t know these individuals, what he said was they asked him if he would be interested in working for them. He was explicit in that he refused to work for them but he did confirm he didn’t know the individuals.” It is interesting that shortly after the TV programme, Abu Nusaybah was himself arrested. Was the reason that MI5 did not move against Adebolajo that they were trying to recruit him? If so, the manoeuvre backfired badly.
The crude nature of the attack and the primitive character of the weapons used (kitchen knives, a meat clever) do not point to the kind of sophisticated operation for which professional Jihadi outfits possess the necessary skills. Rather it would seem to indicate an improvised assault staged by desperate young fanatics, motivated by a deep sense of social alienation and fired up by Jihadi demagogy on the Internet.
What was behind the murder?
What was the intention of those who perpetrated this barbaric act? Was it to arouse the sympathy of the British public for the sufferings of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, for whom this kind of murder and mayhem are nothing unusual but rather their daily bread? This point was made explicit by one of the assassins in a clip filmed by a passer-by. If that was the intention, it has misfired badly.
One of the main reasons for the radicalisation of Muslim youth has undoubtedly been the brutal imperialist interventions in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, which has led to the deaths of many thousands of innocent men, women and children over the past decade. This seems to have been the message that these men wished to convey to the people of Britain. But in that case, they have achieved precisely the opposite result to that intended.
The effect of the Woolwich atrocity has been to provoke a wave of support for the British army and the boys in Afghanistan, who are seen as combating barbarous forces that are intent on killing us all. Far from driving a wedge between the British public and the armed forces, it has had quite the opposite effect.
Maybe it was to gain support for the jihadis among the Muslim population, to show that Islam is capable of “fighting back against the ‘Crusaders’. But the effect of this atrocity has been to provoke wave of revulsion and fear among ordinary Muslims, who are not in favour of terrorist attacks, and still less in favour of butchery. Even more than before Muslims must now live in fear of being seen by suspicion by their non-Muslim neighbours, of having their homes and mosques attacked by racist thugs, of being regarded as “the enemy within.”
Only reaction benefits
The people who stand to gain most from this kind of action are the racists and the fascist thugs of the so-called English Defence League. They have already attempted to stage some provocative demonstrations and rallies aimed against “Islamic extremism”, but in fact directed against all Muslims and immigrants generally. There has been a sharp increase of verbal and physical attacks on ordinary Muslims up and down the country since the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby.
Faith Matters, an organisation that works to reduce extremism, said it had been told of about 150 incidents in the last few days, compared to between four to eight cases before Wednesday. Fiyaz Mughal, the director of Faith Matters, said incidents were happening on the streets and online. “What’s really concerning is the spread of these incidents. They’re coming in from right across the country,” he told the BBC. “Secondly, some of them are quite aggressive; very focused, very aggressive attacks. And thirdly, there also seems to be significant online activity … suggesting co-ordination of incidents and attacks against institutions or places where Muslims congregate.”
The Woolwich murder is also being used to stir up British public opinion to support the introduction of tougher laws against “incitement to terrorism”. A poll published in the Mail on Sunday found 64% believe “more needs to be done to prevent vulnerable people becoming radicalised”. Sixty-three per cent now believe the death penalty should be reintroduced for terrorists. Not only will the rights of terrorists be curtailed but also those of trade unionists and members of the Labour Movement.
This was a propaganda gift of incalculable proportions to the very people and institutions’ the terrorists claim to be fighting against. It serves to strengthen imperialism and the state, providing a highly convenient excuse for the introduction of new repressive legislation, which in the future can be used against the working class.
This fact was immediately made clear by the indecent haste with which the Tories rushed to propose the introduction of anti-democratic legislation. Tory Home Secretary Theresa May has claimed that “thousands of people are potentially at risk of being radicalised” in the UK. She told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show that those at risk were at “different points on what could be a path to violent extremism”. Mrs May said a new taskforce would look at whether new powers were needed to tackle radicalisation. This is a very dangerous development for the Labour Movement.
How could it happen?
It was only to be expected that the circumstances of the Woolwich murder would produce a reaction of revulsion and fury. “They are just animals!” That would be the most common reaction. But despite the monstrous nature of the crime, such a reaction does not fit the facts. Having butchered their victim, the two men did not attack any other person. It would have been very easy to kill and wound a large number of people in the street, but they made no attempt to do so. Instead, they attempted to talk to the shocked witnesses and persuade them of the justice of their cause.
The footage shown on the internet showed a man, speaking to the camera, saying:
“We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” He added: “I apologise that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”
It goes without saying that nobody accepted that such a horrific crime could be justified by any argument whatsoever. But the question that must be asked is: what turns an ordinary young man into a fanatical killer? Why is it that thousands of young people may be attracted to go down this path? Numerous people who knew the family have stated that previously Michael Adebolajo had been a normal youngster, intelligent, kind and humane, but that something had happened to change him.
What was that something? Some point to his conversion to Islam. But many thousands of people convert to Islam without becoming terrorists and murderers. The reason for this transformation must be looked for, not in the pages of the Quran, but in the social conditions of young people in Britain today.
The television news showed the police breaking into a block of old council flats in Woolwich. This type of estate has become a kind of dumping ground for the unfortunate rejects of capitalist society. Nowadays one is lucky even to get that sort of accommodation. There is an acute shortage of housing, especially in London where people cannot afford the high rents. The withdrawal of rent subsidies has forced many poor families to leave their homes and even leave London altogether. Even the Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has described this as “Kosovo-style social cleansing of the poor from London.”
Despite the poverty and bad conditions, many poor families struggle to create a decent living environment, above all to allow their children to “get on”, to go to school, to get out of the abyss of social deprivation. But the dice are always loaded against them. At least one of those responsible for the murder had been to university. But in the present crisis of capitalism, even a university degree is no guarantee of a future. The presence of a large and growing number of unemployed university graduates will provide a vast reserve for the recruitment to terrorist groups of one kind or another, unless the Labour Movement takes the necessary steps to win them over.
In this poisonous milieu, feelings of resentment and alienation can be expressed in all kinds of anti-social behaviour: senseless violence, gangs, drug addiction, and all the other evils that are constantly being spawned by an unjust and inhuman society. If the Labour Movement were true to its traditions, it would organize these young people and provide them with a cause worth fighting for in the transformation of society. But the leaders of Labour have nothing to offer the youth. On the contrary, they seem to be no different to the bourgeois politicians who sit opposite them in the House of Commons.
Looking for a possible solution to their problems, a small layer embraces radical Islam. The demagogy of the Jihadis gives a twisted expression to their sense of injustice and desire to fight the existing system. In place of a class consciousness, they imbibe a sense of religious “otherness” that at once gives them a welcome sense of identity and the conviction of the need to fight a common enemy. Taken to an extreme, this can give rise to the kind of murderous manifestation that was seen on the streets of Woolwich last week.
Fight racism! Fight capitalism!
The liberals and reformists call for “inter-community solidarity”, but such empty slogans will be powerless to combat the racist poison of groups like the English Defence League. As long as our society is racked by the cancer of unemployment, poverty and homelessness, there is no way that the poison of racism can be expunged.
The only answer of the ruling class is to step up state repression. May and Cameron are using the aftermath of this brutal murder to impose suffocating free speech bans, allegedly directed against extremist clerics. Let us be clear. This legislation is not directed against terrorism or acts of violence. It can and will be used against free speech, to prevent anybody from expressing, not just extreme Islamic views but any views that are inimical to the Establishment.
They are considering banning certain people from speaking in schools, colleges, prisons, mosques and other public areas. They are also seeking a lower threshold for banning extremist organisations outright. But Lib Dem deputy leader Simon Hughes has pointed out that there is “no evidence at all that the bill could have prevented the killing in Woolwich”. The working class cannot put such a dangerous weapon into the hands of the ruling class. Such moves to curtail freedom of speech must be resisted by all means.
There is an atmosphere of fear in the Muslim community, which feels anxious and vulnerable. The Labour Movement must be mobilised to defend Muslims against fascist and racist attacks. Pious speeches calling for “unity” are not enough. The Labour Movement must prove in action that it is prepared to defend a minority that is threatened by racist thugs. Let us revive the fighting spirit of the 1930s that culminated in the Battle of cable Street! Let us sweep the fascist rabble from the streets! That will be the best way to cut the ground from under the feet of the Jihadi demagogues and win over the Muslim population to the side of labour.
Deprivation and social alienation feed upon each other in an endless downward spiral. Many of the victims are young blacks, Asians and people from the Middle East, for whom the general problems of poverty, unemployment and the lack of opportunities is compounded by racism and police harassment. It is capitalism that breeds the kind of barbarism we saw last week. Only the overthrow of a rotten system will put an end to the nightmare and create the material conditions for a genuinely human society based on solidarity and brotherhood, not division and hate.