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

Woolwich attack, suspect on street

An important article by Glenn Greenwald on the manipulation of the emotive term “terrorism” and how it is rendered meaningless when states carry out similar violence, albeit on a much wider scale.

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

(updated below)

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.

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  • Chameleon_X

    “How can you equate her argument that a violent or criminal act, with a political motive does qualify as terrorism by making an “equal” comparison to a completely legitimate and legal act of political protest, which harms nobody? That sounds like intellectually dishonesty to me.”

    You should have directed your comment at Sarah. The absurdity was in her definition, not in my response. According to the lazy wording of her definition, all political actions for political purposes are terrorism, which indeed is absurd. Now if you want to throw in the phrase “violent political action” instead of just “political action”, then you are capturing just about every war or battle in history — still absurd yet again.

    “nor do i think you are nearly as clever as you seem to think you are.”

    Then why don’t you try to find out? It’s not about being “clever” at all. It is about rejecting irrational idiocy, which merely takes courage to extricate oneself from nonsensical propaganda. Try to define “terrorism” in a way that is rationally consistent with the popular perception of who the “terrorists” are, and I guarantee that you too will embarrass yourself. Be my guest.

  • Awesome

    You were right, I am gonna try anyway. First of all, you worry about what he stated as a motive, while I do too, I also look for what inspired him.

    – I’m not so much worried about what he stated as his motive. I’m just pointing out that his stated motive is what ultimately drove his actions, and should be the primary focal point when discussing those actions. As for the inspiration, that would be his stated motive.

    And then there’s the politics, and I agree whit you! the wars is digusting and vile as the attack themself(I just dont go around killing people because of it)

    – Most people (including most Muslims) who feel that way about the wars also don’t go around killing people because of it. However, there are always going to be those who take a violent approach, regardless of religion, race or ethnicity. It is just one more symptom of waging immoral, unethical, illegal, and unpopular wars for conquest and profit.

    I cant deny the evidence, even his mother agrees whit me(or, I agree whit her), she knew about the mosque that brainwashed him, and warned him about it.

    – In discussing his motive, that is only relevant if it is going to be claimed that he did not act on his own but under the directive of someone else.

  • Sam Seed

    No, you said Islam is responsible and I gave you the reason that it wasn’t and an analogy as to how in that sense one could argue that the West is by large Christian. Even if half the soldiers aren’t practicing Christians they have that identity. I could by the same token say that the murderers in this case weren’t Muslims because murder is not sanctioned in Islam.

  • Awesome

    Oh, I dont think its irrelevant what he had on his mind, infact that’s a big deal.(for me)

    – I’m sure there is relevance to what else he had in his mind in some other context. However, it is not relevant to this incident, because it was not the stated motive. You can speculate about his underlying sensibilities all you want and how they may have influenced his actual motivation, but it is still not going to be part of the actual motivation. The influences on his motivation is in fact a separate discussion altogether from the motivation itself.

    It looks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, IT IS INFACT a duck. there’s nothing left to say on my part.

    Usually it is, “you want the truth?” “you cant handle the truth” I dont think you want it, or can handle it.

    -That argument can go both ways. Even when he identifies his motive so clearly as being British foreign policy, the imaginary religion angle is still sensationalized as somehow being the culprit, even though his actions are actually against the religion. It has gotten to the point of absurdity when a stated motive gets less emphasis than the speculative influences of that motive.

    It would be like saying the backlash incidents against Muslims somehow have something to do with Britain’s militarism, because the attackers may hold some kinship with the British military, even when it is clear that these incidents are misguided revenge attacks committed by degenerates.

    The truth about this incident, that you do not want to come to terms with, is that British foreign policy was the only stated reason/motive for the alleged stabbing. To you, the British military murdering people in large numbers in foreign countries, is not enough of a motive for someone to lash out against one of their personnel like this, without speculating about and focusing on some other factor.

    there’s nothing left to say on my part.

    – Indeed, there is probably nothing more substantial that can say about this, although I suspect that you are going to anyway.

  • Awesome

    The stated motive was still foreign policy, so it is irrelevant what else he may have had on his mind. That he may have felt a kinship on the basis of faith, with Muslims in other countries who are victims of this foreign policy is besides the point. He didn’t act because of religion, he acted because of foreign policy. That was his justification. There is no indication that the religion was used for anything more than a means to an end as it usually is.

    If it weren’t Islam, it could’ve just as easily been something else and the end result would have been the same or even worse. Therefore, since religion was not the motive the focus should not be on the religion but on foreign policy, which was the motive.

  • Awesome

    No, religion wasn’t involved in his justification, just British foreign policies.

  • Awesome

    And therefore, we have a new definition for “terrorism”:

    – A political term; used as a PR (Public-Relations) weapon against a political opponent, or the actions of a political opponent, by playing on the term’s commonly-held negative connotations without necessarily referring to any of them.

  • Awesome

    In other words, Breivik was corrupted by Islamophobia and having no legal means by which to appease his Islamophobia and xenophobia, resorted to violence.

  • Awesome


    “The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day.”

    Clearly identifies British foreign policy as being the motivation/”corrupting factor” for this “corrupted being” to do what he allegedly did, not Islam. The statement, “Muslims are dying by British soldiers every day” is clearly in reference to British foreign policy. It really shouldn’t need to be any more obvious than that.

    And since British foreign policy is what instigated his misdeed in the first place, then it should be British foreign policy should be the focus of what instigated this incident, not Islam.

  • Yes – but if it can be shown that “terrorism” applies mostly to Muslims then it could be argued in the wider international arena – and perhaps before human rights bodies – that Western nations use “terrorism” and “radicalization” as a regime of discrimination and oppression of Muslims.

    This could be especially true if “terrorism” comes with enhanced criminal penalties, as well as being applied to just Muslims.

    Unfortunately – “terrorism” and “radicalization” and not meaningless – but we can work to make them meaningless and that will require lots of international efforts.

  • Géji

    ” I wish the US and British people can stop seeing themselves as victims …. they don’t care about the Iraqis and Afghani civilians being killed by their governments….”

    I don’t think it’s fair to say that they don’t care, cause after all they’re human beings with feelings and they can sense injustice whenever/wherever is done. But rather I would say that is as if they are numbed with superficialities and can get painfully distractible by petty pursuit instead of substance, and that is whether concerning world realities as well as their own nations. If you look at during the 60’s/70’s ordinary people were more aware about the world politics, especially when militarized Euro-American aggressions were aimed at more vulnerable people example like in Vietnam, where it was the ordinary American men & women who took to the street to stop the atrocities. But is as if especially this generation became too distracted by trivial selfish things that even though they care and see injustice done they don’t have the “time” to do something about it.

  • JD

    Grant Acord, 17-Year-Old, Charged With Attempted Murder Over Plot To Blow Up High School

    PORTLAND, Ore. — An Oregon teenager intended to blow up his school in
    a plot “forged and inspired by the model of the Columbine shootings”
    and he will be charged with attempted aggravated murder, a prosecutor
    said late Saturday.

    Grant Acord, 17, will be charged as an adult and also faces six
    counts of manufacturing and possessing a destructive device after
    investigators found six bombs in a secret compartment in his bedroom,
    said Benton County District Attorney John Haroldson.

    Acord was taken to a juvenile jail Thursday night after
    police received a tip that the youth was making a bomb to blow up West
    Albany High School, located about 75 miles south of Portland.

  • Razainc_aka_BigBoss

    The sad part is if this is true it explains a lot

    Woolwich suspect’s friend arrested after appearing on Newsnight

    Man detained after claiming on television that Michael Adebolajo was tortured in Kenya and harassed by MI5 agents

  • Heinz Catsup

    Leave it to Glenn Greenwald to tell it like it is.

  • Tanveer Khan

    Yeah, im pretty sure hirabah means spreading mmischief throughout the land

  • Solid Snake

    I don’t know the term exactly, but contract breaking in Islam is a HUGE sin. What these men did amounts to treachery. The Prophet of Islam forbade Muslim soldiers on the battlefield from tricking the enemy by saying ‘come I will grant you safety’ and then killing them. It is sad that some Muslims don’t even know about these rulings regarding entering a land that guarantees your safety. And it doesn’t just apply to physical violence, things like cheating on your taxes, food stamps, breaking traffic laws, etc etc are sins and not only should you pay the fines/ or do the time according to the Laws of the country but you should also seek forgiveness from Allah.

  • Solid Snake

    Thanks bro.

  • Tanveer Khan

    Isn’t what those loons did called hirabah?

  • GaribaldiOfLoonwatch

    Sarah, I agree with a lot of what you say in this comment actually. Especially this portion: “I think some people are just disaffected nihilists looking for a sensational cause.”

  • Nur Alia binti Ahmad

    So, is robbing a bank a terrorist attack if the criminal states that he lost his job because of government cutbacks and he was speaking on the behalf of the poor?

  • Nur Alia binti Ahmad


    What ‘corrupted’ the people who watched the man being murdered to watch and film the act, but do nothing to help the victim….Christianity?

    No doubt, there will always be crime, and always criminals will excuse their behavior, but what is telling about society is how they handle crime is how they treat the victim, and who they decide is a victim, and how they decide that.

    As we can see…and need to ask, what ‘corrupted’ the bystanders to watch and film, and not put themselves between the victim and his attacker.

    Is this the kind of society you want to live in…someone who will watch your murder, and the only reaction they have is to put it in the social media while you bleed to death?

  • Sam Seed


  • Sam Seed

    Well said bruv!

  • Sam Seed

    I would mourn for him.

  • Sam Seed

    No it wasn’t Islam it was certain individuals. In that case then I could say Christians are killing Muslims in their own land by the wars they bring.

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