The tragic murder of a young British soldier on Wednesday 23 May at London has raised questions about the changing face of terrorism.

As emphasised by the Scotland Yard investigators, the case was a trail of radical terrorism.

Born in Lambeth, in the London suburb, Michael Olumide Adebolajo, a young man of 29, coldly slaughtered with knives and machetes a young British soldier in the streets of London. A few minutes after the gruesome murder, the young man was shot, bloody hands, explaining the gesture of a very London accent. He said he acted in the name of Islam. The soldier murdered was  Lee Rigby,  25 years old and father of two children.

Surprisingly, studying closely the course Micheal Olumide Adebolajo, there was no sign of a radical Islamist in his previous behavior. The young man was born into a Christian family that would be of Nigerian origin. He had converted to Islam in 2003. His family described him as a sociable boy and uneventful, who grew up in Romford, north-east London. Devout Christian, he frequented the church with his brother and sister. Exemplary education leads at the University of Greenwich.

He only switched to radical terrorism at university. Active member of an extremist group “Almujaharoun” he changed his name to Mujaahid and began proselytizing in the streets of Woolwich, near the spot where he murdered the British soldier.

In the footsteps of  Breivik, Merah and Tsarnaev?

Many people would argue that Breivik case is not similar to that category because of the non Islamist claim. However, the case is also a kind of individual radicalisation that leads the author to tackle government symbols and civilians.

On 22 July 2011, Breivik bombed government buildings in Oslo, which resulted in eight deaths. Within hours after the explosion he arrived at Utøya island, the site of a Labour Party youth camp, posing as a police officer and then opened fire on the unarmed adolescents present, reportedly killing 69.  Breivik confessed and stated that the purpose of the attack was to save Norway and Western Europe from a Muslim takeover, and that the Labour Party had to “pay the price” for “letting down Norway and the Norwegian people.”

Apart from this exceptional case, the three other affairs followed the same modus operandi.

“The Toulouse and Montauban shootings  by Mohamed Merah targeted French soldiers and Jewish civilians  in March 2012. In total, seven people were killed, and five others were seriously injured. The first attack occurred on 11 March, when a Muslim French paratrooper was shot dead in Toulouse. A second attack on 15 March killed two uniformed soldiers and seriously injured another in a shopping centre in Montauban. On 19 March, four people, including three children, were killed at the Ozar Hatorah Jewish day school. The perpetrator, a 23-year-old French of Algerian origin who was previously a petty criminal. He has attacked French Army personnel reportedly because of its involvement in the war in Afghanistan and has admitted anti-Semitic motivations.”

If Micheal Adebolajo Olumide and his accomplice had never been trained in Pakistan counter to Mohamed Merah, they share the same target:  they both address the symbol of Western governments (military, police …) in the name of “Allah”, with the same slogan as Al Qaeda’s.

One can recognize that terrorism is changing its face by taking the most difficultly detectable form.  Al Qaeda is using this form as its current privileged choice. Another unsettling element of this form of terrorism is the age of the radicalized (Young people under 30 years for the majority).This recalls the case of young Belgian who went to fight in Syria.

If it is possible to detect suspicious behaviors from a group of individuals, it is not easy to detect individual radicalisation from the “lone wolves”. In most of the cases, the perpetrators are ordinary individuals.  Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who perpetrated the April 15, 2013, Boston Marathon bombings were described as young integrated people who gave no sign of radicalisation.

How could governments tackle this threat?

The most difficult problem is to arrive to distinguish from people who is or can be a terrorist and where the influence comes from.  In the globalised world, new technologies seem to be a main contributor in the pathway to radicalisation. It isn’t possible to have control over all communication channels without hitting individual freedoms and this is the main challenge.
With the changing terrorism landscape, law enforcement and intelligence services can not resolve the problem alone. There is an imperative need to reach out to different community groups to help them identify threats. To build community resilience against the radicalisation, governments have a very difficult task of building mutual trust and understanding and winning over the “hearts and minds” of the population.


Marie Chantal Uwitonze

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