Understanding the Westminster Attack

Westminster Bridge

Westminster Bridge

At two-forty on 22nd March 2017, a 52 year old British-born man, Khalid Masood drove at high speed over Westminster Bridge, killing three and injuring up to fifty, before breaking outside the gates of the Parliament and forcing his way into the grounds. He repeatedly stabbed one of the two duty policemen who challenged him before running towards the main entrance to the Parliamentary buildings themselves and was then killed by one of the armed members of Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s bodyguard detail.

There is wide-ranging coverage of this incident in the British and non-British media covering Masood’s story of radicalisation, nature of his victims, security on the Parliamentary estate as well as mounting criticism of Prevent. Many of these issues have been dealt with generically in previous briefs, so this brief will focus briefly on two separate note-worthy items which are both important, but have not been picked up substantially in the media. The first is the language being used by politicians to describe the attackers motivations and the second is Masood’s choice of weapons.

In many ways, the responses by British politicians thus far has been somewhat familiar: there have been defiant cries and expressions of unity versus division. But there are also number of ways in which the response has been subtly different as well. When Prime Minister Theresa May spoke outside her Downing Street office shortly after 9pm on the evening of the attacks, there was a lack of language which sought to separate Islam from Islamic terrorism. She made no speech citing Islam as a religion of peace, as had been the pattern in the past, and she used the word ‘Islamist’, which, whilst still dislocating the religion from the jihadi ideology was still a clearer linguistic link between the acts of violence and the faith. The same evening, Acting Deputy Assistant Police Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police, Mark Rowley cited “international terrorism” as the motivation and went on to clarify that as “Islamist Terrorism”. This was unusual both in relation to the fact that the clarification was issued and also in the relatively early context of the investigation. Yet even this language moved on from ADAC Rowley on the evening of 22nd March, to the morning of 23rd March when the British Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, in an interview on the BBC’s flagship current affairs show, the Today programme, stated that the working assumption was that the attack was “linked to Islamic terrorism”. In her powerful statement to the House of Commons at 10:30 on the morning after the attack, the Prime Minister reverted back to the use of the term ‘Islamist’, but nevertheless, the term was being used far more than ‘terrorist’ or ‘extremist’, which had been the style previously.

In many ways, the language shift can be seen as a signal of a ‘step-on’ that politicians now appear to be willing to make and the statements brought the position of the government publically more into line with the language of the updated ‘Prevent‘ strategy. That strategy was published in 2015 and it placed a far greater emphasis on fighting the ideology behind ‘jihadism‘ than had previous been the case under the past Coalition government, and the government of New Labour before that. This shifting language also spoke of an obvious frustration with the continuation of radicalisation and a growing desire to engage with the issues more robustly. Nothing exemplified that more than when the former government Minister Liam Byrne (Labour), openly spoke of his concerns about growing radicalisation in his Birmingham constituency on a BBC television programme on the 23rd March.

The second item not covered by the media was the fact that Masood was carrying two knives with him when he was shot. One knife looked like a ‘commando‘ knife: this appears to have been the weapon that he used to stab PC Keith Palmer, the police officer who confronted him. The other was, what looked like, a meat cleaver: a large, heavy, wide-bladed knife.

Why did he carry both? (Questions about a lack of guns have been reasonably assessed as being down to heavy intelligence penetration of the illegal arms trade in the UK, for any attempt by Masood to buy firearms would have raised flags concerning his intentions).

My assessment of his carrying of two knives, given their difference, is that he Masood might have been seeking to behead a politician: a hugely symbolic act in salafi-jihadi ideology if that was indeed his intention.

There are two potential reasons why Masood might have been seeking to take the head of a politician. The first would be that it was an expression of ayat such as Q8:12 ‘Remember when the Lord inspired to the Angels, ”I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike them upon the neck and strike them from every fingertip”. [Sahih International version]

It is well documented that the attack on Lee Rigby beheaded the drummer so it is a tactic that has been deployed before in the UK.

Taking the head of a politician would not only have carried out the spirit of ayat such as Q8.12, but it would also have been a highly significant symbolic strike against the ‘mother of all Parliaments’ and, as such, would have been a strike against democracy as a whole. It was known that Britain was to be the next subject of attack following Nice in France: al-Adnani, former propaganda chief for IS before he was killed, had specified as much in his broadcasts. So there had clearly long been an intention from IS to carry out a significant attack in the UK: ‘significant’, but would be an enormous symbolic gesture.

The second possible reason to choose a beheading, (which might not need to have been considered separate from the first possible cause) was that it represents both a general insult in Arabic culture and a specific reference to the Dhimmi status: the second class citizenship of non-Muslims under Muslim rule historically. Dr. Mark Durie’s excellent book The Third Choice describes that part of the ceremony of the paying of the Dhimma tax, the jizya, was that the payee was struck on the neck as both an insult and a signal. The message was that the Muslim tax collector had the right to take the head of the Dhimmi, but, in his mercy, he was going to allow the Dhimmi to pay the tax and keep his life for another year.

Of course, neither of these symbolic Islamic constructs might have been in Masood’s head when he planned and executed his attack: the increasing information being released about his life reveals a man who had used knives on a fairly regular basis in anger and as a weapon in robbery. But the fact that the ‘IS soldier’ had two very different knives with him in an attack which was planned at least a week before (which is when Masood hired the car which became his initial kill vehicle) demonstrates that the knives that he had upon him were unlikely to have been random choices quickly picked up to use in a spur of the moment decision.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The London attack launched on 22nd March 2017 is unlikely to prove a ‘watershed moment’ on its own, but the shift in the language from politicians can be seen as a step further on in connecting Islam to jihadism.

It is a shame that the potential significance of the knives has not been picked up in the media for if it was, it would increase pressure to strengthen the ideological campaign against IS or al-Qa’ida through PREVENT and would perhaps encourage Muslims to confront the teachings of their own scriptures more.

If any media contacts are available to the readers of this article, it would be worth alerting them to the symbolic significance of what Masood appears to have been trying to do which goes beyond the simple ‘strike at democracy’ which is the focus of media attention.

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