woolwichAftermath of attack in Woolwich, London / Credit: ITV

Although it is not yet clear what motivated the beheading of a man believed to be a soldier outside of the Woolwich barracks in London, the incident, which is being treated as an apparent terrorist attack, is reflective of al-Qaeda's incitement for lone-wolf strikes against soldiers in Western countries. Such propaganda has been presented in messages from al-Qaeda's American spokesman Adam Gadahn (AKA Azzam the American) and now-deceased al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) official Anwar al-Awlaki, as well as through "Inspire," AQAP's English e-magazine.

On several occasions, Gadahn urged Muslims to take the initiative and carry out acts of individual jihad in states comprising the "Zio-Crusader coalition," which is allegedly at war with Islam. One of his messages was conveyed in an English-subtitled video released on jihadist forums on October 23, 2010, and titled, "The Arabs and Muslims: Between the Conferences of Desertion… and the Individual Duty of Jihad." Calling Muslims to carry out attacks around the world, Gadahn approvingly noted previous domestic attacks and extended the rationale for individual operations against any available target, particularly soldiers, stating:

"As long as the capability is there, the targets are there, and the enemy strikes us everywhere – and he is an enemy occupier who sets off from his bases in our countries to kill, destroy, bomb and behave immorally – then according to which truth, which form of reason and which religion are the Muslims being forbidden from inflicting death on the senior criminals in every arena and field?"

Less than a year later, Gadahn again incited jihadists in the West to act, speaking in a two-part June 2011 video titled, "You Are Only Responsible for Yourself," which featured al-Qaeda officials mobilizing for individual jihad. He opened his portion of the video by urging jihadists to use the weapons at their disposal, such as firearms in the United States. Addressing Muslims in the West, he stated:

"Muslims in the West have to remember that they are perfectly placed to play an important and decisive part in the jihad against the Zionists and Crusaders and to do major damage to the enemies of Islam waging war on their religion, sacred places and things and brethren. This is a golden opportunity and a blessing from Allah Subhanu wa Ta'ala, and the way to show one's appreciation and thanks for this blessing is to rush to discharge one's duty to his Ummah and fight on its behalf with everything at his disposal. And in the West you've got a lot at your disposal."

He concluded by asking listeners: "So what are you waiting for?"

Jihadist leaders have held up attacks against soft military targets as operations that should be emulated in order to punish Western military operations against Muslims. For example, they frequently cite the November 5, 2009, attack at Fort Hood in which Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and injured 30 in a shooting rampage. In one such message, Anwar al-Awlaki categorically endorsed attacks against soldiers, particularly those who would be deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Speaking in an interview with AQAP's al-Malahem Media Foundation that was released on jihadist forums on May 22, 2010, Awlaki defended Hasan against criticism for his actions, asking rhetorically how anyone could object to the attack:

"...how can we object to an operation as Nidal Hasan's operation?! He killed American soldiers who were on their way to Afghanistan and Iraq. Who would object to that?! There is unanimous consent, there is agreement when it comes to this matter..."

In addition to incitement given through audio-visual messages, targeting soldiers is suggested in the ninth issue of "Inspire" magazine, which was released on May 2, 2012. It listed potential targets as "personalities who are at war with Islam and Muslims" as well as "military targets belonging to the enemy" in a section dedicated to lone-wolf attacks and communicating with the group for advice. Moreover, the issue included an excerpt from a text by jihadi strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, giving hierarchical listing of targets for individual jihadists. Addressing the "most important targets in America and in Western countries allied to her militarily," the "Inspire" article, titled, "The Jihadi Experiences: The Most Important Enemy Targets Aimed At By the Individual Jihad," quoted al-Suri's directive that among the most important targets are:

"Military bases and barracks where the armies are concentrated, especially the American military bases in Europe."

Statements reportedly made by one of the attackers reflect key aspects of jihadi ideology, such as an evocation: "We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you...Your people will never be safe." If confirmed to be a jihadist operation, the May 22, 2013, attack in London is the most recent in a series of high-profile attacks targeting military personnel, including Nidal Malik Hasan's November 2009 attack at Fort Hood that killed 13, and Arid Uka's March 2011 shooting attack at a bus en route to the Frankfurt airport that killed two American airmen. Other jihadists have been arrested plotting lone-wolf attacks on military targets, including recruiting centers, military installations, and venues popular with off-duty military personnel.

Moreover, the operation keeps in line with al-Qaeda's long-standing attempt to mobilize radical Muslims around the world and unleash an army of lone-wolf jihadists. For example, in an audio message released on February 24, 2011, Ayman al-Zawahiri, then second-in-command of al-Qaeda, asserted that when planning operations "....the mujahideen must invent new ways, ways that never dawned on the minds of the West."

The beheading in London also evokes memories of former al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his beheading of Nicholas Berg in 2004, and the dozens of beheadings that followed from his Tawhid Wal Jihad group and other factions. While the gruesome nature of these executions shocked people, they were celebrated by jihadists for instilling fear in the enemy and sending a message that the fighters kill their foes in the harshest of ways.

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