Like the twin bombings at the race finish line in Boston last month, Wednesday’s attack by two machete-wielding men spouting venomous threats to avenge Muslim deaths in faraway wars was a sobering reminder that terror now lurks in the hearts of local youth and on ordinary streets and sidewalks.
The suspects in both cases are young men accorded the benefits of education and personal freedoms, raising perplexing questions of how seemingly integrated immigrants come to be radicalized to act in the name of a remote, embattled homeland.
While authorities were investigating the scene of the London slaying of Lee Rigby, a British veteran of the NATO mission to defeat Islamic extremism in Afghanistan, President Obama was oratorically wrangling with the unanswerable questions in a speech at the National Defense University at Ft. McNair.
It was a fine line to walk for Obama. He denounced any resort to violence by those aggrieved by Western actions in the war against terror. But he also conceded that U.S. security policies that have “compromised our basic values” -- such as torture and indefinite detention of terror suspects -- are also partly to blame for feeding extremist hatred of the West.
Obama’s pledge to renew efforts to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and war crimes tribunal encouraged those who have criticized his administration and the one before it for violating terrorism suspects’ constitutional and human rights. They also hailed his promise to limit the use of drone strikes to kill militants to circumstances where there is an imminent threat to American lives and no possibility of capturing the perpetrator.
But the recent terrorist attacks by apparently home-grown extremists suggest the anger stirred worldwide by extraordinary rendition, torture, imprisonment without charges and civilian casualties of war has burrowed deeply into the psyches of young men with roots in the conflict-torn corners of the world.
The death of Rigby, from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, was the first in Britain in to be attributed to Islamic extremism since the July 2005 coordinated London transit bombings that killed more than 50 commuters. Two blood-drenched men shot and captured at the scene of Wednesday’s slaying in the Woolwich area of London were recorded on cellphones clutching bloody knives. One, identified by a Lebanon-based militant group as 28-year-old Michael Adebolajo, claimed in the video that their attack was “payback” for Muslims killed in countries where British troops are engaged in counter-terrorism operations. The BBC and other London media said Adebolajo was a British citizen from a devoutly Christian Nigerian family who had converted to Islam a decade ago.
The Boston bombing suspects, 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his late brother Tamerlan, had also spent much of their lives in Western suburbia, far from the Russian military oppression of their ancestral homeland of Chechnya. Friends of the brothers have reportedly told investigators that Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, had become increasingly agitated by U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where thousands of Muslim civilians have died as “collateral damage” during invasions, raids and airstrikes.
Investigation of the Boston Marathon attack continued to unveil hidden discontent among U.S. Muslim immigrants. On Wednesday, an FBI agent interviewing a friend of Tamerlan Tsarnaev in Florida shot and killed the man being questioned after he allegedly attacked the agent. Ibragim Todashev, 27, and another Tsarnaev friend in Orlando came to authorities’ attention in the sweeping investigation of the marathon bombings as possible suspects in an unsolved 2011 triple murder in Waltham, Mass., near the Tsarnaev brothers’ apartments in the Boston suburb of Watertown.
U.S. forces have had no overt involvement in Chechnya, where two wars were fought in futile efforts to secede from Russia in the 1990s. In fact, then-President Clinton was often critical of Moscow for its deadly aggressiveness in putting down the Chechen insurrections. That the brothers apparently conflated the grievances of their homeland with those of Muslims under U.S. fire in Afghanistan could be testimony to the power and success of Islamic extremist propaganda. Images of U.S. soldiers abusing captives at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, photos of Muslim women and children inadvertently killed in drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and scenes of hooded, orange-jumpsuit-clad captives behind razor-wire fences at Guantanamo have been used by Al Qaeda as veritable recruiting posters.
Obama’s pledge Thursday to recover the moral high ground in the war on terrorism was met with criticism from the right and skepticism from the left.
Obama’s promised policy reviews “are all positive developments, but they need to be followed up by concrete action,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Dixon Osburn, legal director of Human Rights First, welcomed the assurances of more “transparency” in the use of drones but remained “deeply concerned that the administration appears to be institutionalizing a problematic targeted killing policy.”
The only announcement of the president to draw even moderate acclaim was his plan to lift a moratorium on Guantanamo detainee repatriations imposed after the failed Christmas Day 2009 plot to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner. The would-be bomber had been trained and equipped by radicals in Yemen.
Of the 166 prisoners still at Guantanamo, more than half are Yemenis, including 59 long ago cleared for transfer to their home country.
“Yemen welcomes the administration's decision to lift the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen,” said Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for the Yemeni Embassy in Washington. He pledged the Sana government’s cooperation to ensure any returning detainees’ “gradual rehabilitation and integration back into society.”