In The Name Of God The Most Merciful, Most Compassionate

Was the London killing of a British soldier ‘terrorism’?

by Glenn Greenwald
Source: The Guardian

Filed under: Featured,Opinion |

Woolwich attack, suspect on street

By: Glenn Greenwald

Source: The Guardian

Two men yesterday engaged in a horrific act of violence on the streets of London by using what appeared to be a meat cleaver to hack to death a British soldier. In the wake of claims that the assailants shouted “Allahu Akbar” during the killing, and a video showing one of the assailants citing Islam as well as a desire to avenge and stop continuous UK violence against Muslims, media outlets (including the Guardian) and British politicians instantly characterized the attack as “terrorism”.

That this was a barbaric and horrendous act goes without saying, but given the legal, military, cultural and political significance of the term “terrorism”, it is vital to ask: is that term really applicable to this act of violence? To begin with, in order for an act of violence to be “terrorism”, many argue that it must deliberately target civilians. That’s the most common means used by those who try to distinguish the violence engaged in by western nations from that used by the “terrorists”: sure, we kill civilians sometimes, but we don’t deliberately target them the way the “terrorists” do.

But here, just as was true for Nidal Hasan’s attack on a Fort Hood military base, the victim of the violence was a soldier of a nation at war, not a civilian. He was stationed at an army barracks quite close to the attack. The killer made clear that he knew he had attacked a soldier when he said afterward: “this British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

The US, the UK and its allies have repeatedly killed Muslim civilians over the past decade (and before that), but defenders of those governments insist that this cannot be “terrorism” because it is combatants, not civilians, who are the targets. Can it really be the case that when western nations continuously kill Muslim civilians, that’s not “terrorism”, but when Muslims kill western soldiers, that is terrorism? Amazingly, the US has even imprisoned people at Guantanamo and elsewhere on accusations of “terrorism” who are accused of nothing more than engaging in violence against US soldiers who invaded their country.

It’s true that the soldier who was killed yesterday was out of uniform and not engaged in combat at the time he was attacked. But the same is true for the vast bulk of killings carried out by the US and its allies over the last decade, where people are killed in their homes, in their cars, at work, while asleep (in fact, the US has re-defined “militant” to mean “any military-aged male in a strike zone”). Indeed, at a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on drone killings, Gen. James Cartwright and Sen. Lindsey Graham both agreed that the US has the right to kill its enemies even while they are “asleep”, that you don’t “have to wake them up before you shoot them” and “make it a fair fight”. Once you declare that the “entire globe is a battlefield” (which includes London) and that any “combatant” (defined as broadly as possible) is fair game to be killed – as the US has done – then how can the killing of a solider of a nation engaged in that war, horrific though it is, possibly be “terrorism”?

When I asked on Twitter this morning what specific attributes of this attack make it “terrorism” given that it was a soldier who was killed, the most frequent answer I received was that “terrorism” means any act of violence designed to achieve political change, or more specifically, to induce a civilian population to change their government or its policies of out fear of violence. Because, this line of reasoning went, one of the attackers here said that “the only reasons we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily” and warned that “you people will never be safe. Remove your government”, the intent of the violence was to induce political change, thus making it “terrorism”.

That is at least a coherent definition. But doesn’t that then encompass the vast majority of violent acts undertaken by the US and its allies over the last decade? What was the US/UK “shock and awe” attack on Baghdad if not a campaign to intimidate the population with a massive show of violence into submitting to the invading armies and ceasing their support for Saddam’s regime? That was clearly its functional intent and even its stated intent. That definition would also immediately include the massive air bombings of German cities during World War II. It would include the Central American civilian-slaughtering militias supported, funded and armed by the Reagan administration throughout the 1980s, the Bangledeshi death squads trained and funded by the UK, and countless other groups supported by the west that used violence against civilians to achieve political ends.

The ongoing US drone attacks unquestionably have the effect, and one could reasonably argue the intent, of terrorizing the local populations so that they cease harboring or supporting those the west deems to be enemies. The brutal sanctions regime imposed by the west on Iraq and Iran, which kills large numbers of people, clearly has the intent of terrorizing the population into changing its governments’ policies and even the government itself. How can one create a definition of “terrorism” that includes Wednesday’s London attack on this British soldier without including many acts of violence undertaken by the US, the UK and its allies and partners? Can that be done?

I know this vital caveat will fall on deaf ears for some, but nothing about this discussion has anything to do with justifiability. An act can be vile, evil, and devoid of justification without being “terrorism”: indeed, most of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century, from the Holocaust to the wanton slaughter of Stalin and Pol Pot and the massive destruction of human life in Vietnam, are not typically described as “terrorism”. To question whether something qualifies as “terrorism” is not remotely to justify or even mitigate it. That should go without saying, though I know it doesn’t.

The reason it’s so crucial to ask this question is that there are few terms – if there are any – that pack the political, cultural and emotional punch that “terrorism” provides. When it comes to the actions of western governments, it is a conversation-stopper, justifying virtually anything those governments want to do. It’s a term that is used to start wars, engage in sustained military action, send people to prison for decades or life, to target suspects for due-process-free execution, shield government actions behind a wall of secrecy, and instantly shape public perceptions around the world. It matters what the definition of the term is, or whether there is a consistent and coherent definition. It matters a great deal.

There is ample scholarship proving that the term has no such clear or consistently applied meaning (see the penultimate section here, and my interview with Remi Brulin here). It is very hard to escape the conclusion that, operationally, the term has no real definition at this point beyond “violence engaged in by Muslims in retaliation against western violence toward Muslims”. When media reports yesterday began saying that “there are indications that this may be act of terror”, it seems clear that what was really meant was: “there are indications that the perpetrators were Muslims driven by political grievances against the west” (earlier this month, an elderly British Muslim was stabbed to death in an apparent anti-Muslim hate crime and nobody called that “terrorism”). Put another way, the term at this point seems to have no function other than propagandistically and legally legitimizing the violence of western states against Muslims while delegitimizing any and all violence done in return to those states.

One last point: in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks, I documented that the perpetrators of virtually every recent attempted and successful “terrorist” attack against the west cited as their motive the continuous violence by western states against Muslim civilians. It’s certainly true that Islam plays an important role in making these individuals willing to fight and die for this perceived just cause (just as ChristianityJudaismBuddhism, and nationalism lead some people to be willing to fight and die for their cause). But the proximate cause of these attacks are plainly political grievances: namely, the belief that engaging in violence against aggressive western nations is the only way to deter and/or avenge western violence that kills Muslim civilians.

Add the London knife attack on this soldier to that growing list. One of the perpetrators said on camera that “the only reason we killed this man is because Muslims are dying daily” and “we apologize that women had to see this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same.” As I’ve endlessly pointed out, highlighting this causation doesn’t remotely justify the acts. But it should make it anything other than surprising. On Twitter last night, Michael Moore sardonically summarized western reaction to the London killing this way:

“I am outraged that we can’t kill people in other counties without them trying to kill us!”

Basic human nature simply does not allow you to cheer on your government as it carries out massive violence in multiple countries around the world and then have you be completely immune from having that violence returned.

Drone admissions

In not unrelated news, the US government yesterday admitted for the first time what everyone has long known: that it killed four Muslim American citizens with drones during the Obama presidency, including a US-born teenager whom everyone acknowledges was guilty of nothing. As Jeremy Scahill – whose soon-to-be-released film “Dirty Wars” examines US covert killings aimed at Muslims – noted yesterday about this admission, it “leaves totally unexplained why the United States has killed so many innocent non-American citizens in its strikes in Pakistan and Yemen”. Related to all of these issues, please watch this two-minute trailer for “Dirty Wars”, which I reviewed a few weeks ago here:


The headline briefly referred to the attack as a “machete killing”, which is how initial reports described it, but the word “machete” was deleted to reflect uncertainty over the exact type of knife use. As the first paragraph now indicates, the weapon appeared to be some sort of meat cleaver.


In the Guardian today, former British soldier Joe Glenton, who served in the war in Afghanistan, writes under the headline “Woolwich attack: of course British foreign policy had a role”. He explains:

“While nothing can justify the savage killing in Woolwich yesterday of a man since confirmed to have been a serving British soldier, it should not be hard to explain why the murder happened. . . . It should by now be self-evident that by attacking Muslims overseas, you will occasionally spawn twisted and, as we saw yesterday, even murderous hatred at home. We need to recognise that, given the continued role our government has chosen to play in the US imperial project in the Middle East, we are lucky that these attacks are so few and far between.”

This is one of those points so glaringly obvious that it is difficult to believe that it has to be repeated.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of

indian_observer 5pts

This is the law of physics that every action has equal opposite reaction. It is the universal principle. The unjust everyday annihilation of countless innocent Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine (and also dispossessing them - their home land, destroying their crop, livelihood, homes, schools and houses - strangulating them to a slow and painful death), Pakistan, and Somalia by the American, Israel and US European allies can not go without creating avenging mentality among the suffering lot. It is natural, even the most peace loving people will tolerate such atrocities for some time but not for so long. Call it terrorism or what ever but know for sure – by discrediting such retaliatory action as – terrorism, you will not be able to stop it. The only way to do so – just by stopping the injustices that you are perpetrating against these hapless people. Let wisdom prevail. Let there be peace in the world - Muslims love that more than any body.

whoguy 5pts

You guys suck... that's why everyone hates Muslims!!! You kill in Gods name, always play the victim, kill the ones who care for you, then justify your deeds using the koran.

Take a good look at yourselves and try to understand WHY people hate you all soooo much!!!

IftikharAhmad 5pts

The true honest practicing Muslims were all absolutely shocked and remorseful about what happened in Boston and Woolwich. This is a huge tragedy and a loss for all  as humanitarians. This is so sad. Muslim community unconditionally condemns and repudiates the bombings that took place in Boston and brutal killing of a British soldier. We share the pain of fellow Americans and Brits and express our sincere condolences to the families and friends of those who were killed or injured in this vicious attack. The killing of innocents can never be justified.  And, it is our hope that the perpetrator(s) of this horrible act soon be apprehended and brought to justice. There is about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world, and how many commit atrocities like this? And last time I checked the Aurora shooter's and the Sandy Hook shooter's religious beliefs were not publicized and connected to their acts. Religion is only an important factor when its not Christian.   It seems the victim was a soldier. Does that make any difference? It seems the two assassins did not try to escape, and the police when the arrived shot them both. So the perpetrators were both prosecuted to the full extent lawlessly. I go only by what has been reported on the TV news, but summary justice has no place in civilized society whoever does it and whether by machete or by drones. Two wrongs do not make a right. We are not the USA. Criminals must be brought to trial, not arbitrarily murdered.  

Terrorism and sexual grooming is nothing to do with Masajid, Imams and Muslim schools. Those Muslim youths who have been involved in terrorism and sexual grooming are the product of western education system which makes a man stupid, selfish and corrupt. They find themselves cut off from their cultural heritage, literature and poetry. They suffer from identity crises and I blame British schooling. Masajid, Imams, Muslim schools and Madrassas are not teaching hatred against non-Muslims.  They teach Muslim children that homosexuality  is a sin. This does not mean that they are teaching hatred.

Why is the NATO merrily slaughtering thousands of innocent people and children every week with these drones and not called to heel? Why is the mass scale of these daily atrocities and carnage never reported and just callously written off as collateral damage? This not a war on terrorism at all, and its more than blatant bullying. This actually IS terrorism. And the worst of it is that our government despite all the death and destruction, are happy to stain their hands with the blood of collateral damage too. Its all so horribly wrong!And this is what gives fuel to terrorists and the real reason they hate the west. Thousands of innocent children and women killed by these.   A vast majority of people in this world just want to live their lives with their families and friends, and don't give a hoot about what other people do, as long as they can go on with their families and friends. I find it almost impossible to believe that most Muslims want to kill people who don't share their views. The matter at hand is how to change the mind-set of people so a higher percentage does not turn to violence. One should not lump all individuals of any particular Faith in with the violent actions of a few misguided individuals who USE Religion to justify their violent actions. Every now and then a Muslim kills in the US and some people jump on ALL Muslims, as though WHITES, CHRISTIANS or otherwise, do not kill. They forget that non-Muslim killing far outnumbers Muslim killing in the US. They call for the expulsion of Muslims. The BEST SOLUTION would be for all FOREIGNERS to go back to their roots and return the country to the original AMERICAN NATIVES. Is this not a FAIR PROPOSAL? LOL! You white Christians have destroyed the Native Americans and it is only fair and right that YOU be destroyed by other communities.     The IRA was a TERRORIST organization who bombed schools full of children, massacred innocents and put bombs in busy London subway stations ...oh, and thy were all "devout" Roman Catholics many Catholics were blamed for this and generalized as terrorists? ..I'm just saying.

  Iftikhar Ahmad

London School of Islamics Trust


guest 5pts

One look at the picture says it all. Hoax by Mass Media. The guy has no blood on his clothing, the lady is not trying to run away, she is calmly talking to him, no one is trying to disarm the guy look at all the men in the background. No one is running away. Don't be fooled by propaganda. no blood in street

JudyManzoor 5pts

I am totally against any one killing. I hate the thought of  what is called war and that justifies why some kill but to me is one takes some ones life they are in the wrong. I am not God and I have no right to judge anyone and know one has the right to judge me, as i dont have the right to judge, I feel we are all being judged here and put into the same group just because we pray to Allah.But i dont feel anyone should of killed this man and i feel for his family and please dont take sides  in this it is what the ones that did this horrible crime wants 

Nadim_footyfan 5pts

We are at war with Britain!! This was an act of Jihad.  Now, go ahead call me 'extremist'. *grabs popcorn*

Shefa Ali
Shefa Ali 5pts

It's all bloody double standards!!! The brutal killing of that soldier doesn't justify nothing nor does the killings of Muslims happening every single day killed by the British n US soldiers but the damn media circulates the image portraying so badly which causes further anger hatred n racism in people towards brings out the likes of EDL's. Furthermore the ignorancy of some- mostly the young ones doesn't help when instantly they blame the religion n start writing threatening msges on FB twitter etc...what makes them the better human being? Their killing n msges aren't portrait as extremism or terrorist acts or thoughts....just defence hatred, madness n whatever else shite they come up with!!! All bloody double standard narrow minded little minds!!!! Lack of religious understanding is quite amusing!!! Ignorance is bliss after all n that what suits the likes of these people!!! It's a no win no losing game for us Muslims, whatever we do it's wrong coz we are simply Muslims following our religion Islam n so will do no matter what!!!!

Yousef Yaqoub
Yousef Yaqoub 5pts

Strange thing is if this soldier died of a diesese, would anyone care? Because he died in a attack by a muslim, suddenly people care?

Sole 5pts

I don't get the point of this article, violent attack or act of terrorism. Who cares what it's called, the author is boarding lining to defending this horrible crime. The killed and in the name of our religion and reflects badly on Islam doesn't matter how you try to paint it. We shouldn't defend it, nor try to compare it what US or UK has done but teach that this is not ok. We are better than this.

Ron Emery
Ron Emery 5pts

It was a fine article and right on point, but let's move beyond placing blame. Let us be proactive in finding solutions to the cycle of violence. Let us take the initiative in finding the path to peace. Put away the guns and knifes and IED's. We prescribed a Law and an Open way. If Allah had so willed, he would have made you a single People, but (His Plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute; Qur'an 5:51 Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, enjoining what is right, and forbidding what is wrong: They are the ones to attain felicity. Qur'an 3:104 Assalam alaykum; Let us make that greeting a reality for everyone.

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