Reporting on Islam and lone-wolf terror attacks

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Details are continuing to emerge on Wednesday’s murder of British soldier Lee Rigby near the Woolwich barracks in London — a crime described by Prime Minister David Cameron as a terrorist attack.

The killing was carried out by two British nationals of Nigerian origin who converted to Islam from Christianity within the past few years. MI5, the British domestic security agency, is reported to have been aware of the radical nature of their religious beliefs, but until Wednesday the two had not done anything to warrant prosecution. No terrorist groups have yet claimed responsibility for the attack.

Like the Fort Hood shooting and last month’s Boston Marathon bombings, the Woolwich killing appears to have been a lone-wolf attack — a terror attack carried out by an individual or small group on the radar of the FBI or MI5 but not under the operational command of the terrorist organization like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. While no evidence has so far been published that connects these local cells with overseas terrorist groups, the radicalization via the internet of the terrorists in Cambridge, London, and Texas draw upon a common religious or ideological indoctrination from the wider jihadist movement.

The British press appears to be following the Greenberg template for reporting on Islamist terror attacks in its coverage of the Woolwich jihad murder. In 2009 GetReligion scribe Brad Greenberg outlined the progression of stories in the American press on Maj. Nidal Hasan and the Fort Hood shootings.

Start with shock and awe. Then, as information starts to get out, report that the suspected shooter has an Arabic name. Confirm that he was, in fact, a Muslim. Once that has settled in, add to the story about motive the possibility of jihad and the references to 9/11. Finally, within short order, fill out the picture with a story about American Muslims condemning the alleged act of their misguided brother.

Some things remain the same. The Muslim Council of Britain has denounced the murder is being unrepresentative of Islam and the Thursday print editions put the killers’ jihadist motivations at the top of their stories.

The Daily Mail led its story with photos of the two knife-wielding killers with this extended caption:  “2.20pm on a suburban high street, Islamic fanatics wielding cleavers butcher a British soldier, taking their war on the West to a new level of horror”.  It opened with:

‘You people will never be safe,’ he declares in a clear south London accent. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ In broad daylight, he and an accomplice had just repeatedly stabbed and tried to behead an off- duty soldier in front of dozens of passers-by. Throughout the frenzied attack they shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ – Arabic for ‘God is great’ – then demanded horrified witnesses film them as they ranted over the crumpled body. The two black men in their 20s, waited calmly for armed police to arrive before charging at officers brandishing a rusty revolver, knives and meat cleavers.

The Daily Telegraph reported:

“A BRITISH soldier was butchered on a busy London street yesterday by two Islamist terrorists, one of whom proclaimed afterwards: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The Guardian:

A man suspected of staging a terrorist attack that left a British soldier dead near a military barracks in London, was caught on camera clutching a meat cleaver and knife in hands apparently covered in the blood of his victim, as he justified the violence as part of a jihadist-inspired fight against the west.

The Independent:

Terrorism returned to the streets of Britain yesterday when a soldier was murdered by two suspected Islamists who attempted to behead and disembowel him as he left a barracks, in the first deadly attack since the 2005 London bombings. One of the suspected killers, who addressed an onlooker who had a camera, said the pair had carried out the attack “because David Cameron, [the] British government sent troops in Arabic country”.


The Herald (Glasgow) stated: “A MAN believed to be a serving soldier has been killed on a London street in a frenzied machete attack by two suspected terrorists who shouted “Allahu Akbar” and said they were avenging the deaths of Muslims.”

The Scotsman: “A MAN believed to be a British soldier has died after he was hacked to death in the street by two suspected Muslim fanatics armed with knives, machetes, a meat cleaver and a handgun.”

The Daily Express:

TWO suspected terrorists were shot by police yesterday after they kidnapped a soldier in broad daylight and hacked him to death in the street. Police marksmen gunned down the killers who were seen “chopping and cutting” the defenceless man with a long knife and a machete as he lay on the ground. Chanting “Allahu akbar” – meaning “God is great” in Arabic – the men filmed themselves committing the atrocity before dragging the lifeless victim, wearing a Help For Heroes T- shirt, into the middle of the road near Woolwich Barracks, in south- east London.

In terrifying scenes, a horrified onlooker filmed one of the attackers calmly walking away from the soldier’s corpse and launching into a chilling rant.His hands soaked in blood and carrying a blood- covered cleaver and knife he warned: “We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. Your people will never be safe. “We must fight them as they fight us. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

And the Daily Mirror reported:

Horrified witnesses told last night how the off-duty soldier beheaded by two Islamic terrorists yesterday was hacked at “like a piece of meat”. The unnamed serviceman, wearing a Help for Heroes T-shirt, was brutally butchered with knives and meat cleavers after a car mounted the pavement and ploughed into him.

All of the newspapers I’ve read the day after the killing played it straight, reporting the news without resort to politically correct euphemisms or obfuscations.

The follow-up stories have also focused on religion — the circumstances surrounding the killers conversion to Islam, their links to militant groups and membership in radical mosques, and speculation on the religious motives behind the attack.

We may see the British government adopt the craven attitude of the U.S. Army in the Fort Hood shooting, which characterized it as “workplace violence” and avoided mention of Islam — but in these initial stories the British press has been doing a great job in bringing all the facts to the attention of the newspaper reading public.

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