Lee Rigby Murder Was Not an Act Of Terrorism


"We will not give in to terror," Prime Minister David Cameron said in the aftermath of the killing of British military drummer Lee Rigby. However, is stabbing a soldier to death an act of terror? In an excellent article in the Guardian Glenn Greenwald argues that it was not terrorism, just a "horrific act of violence."

While the attack bears many of the hallmarks of a terrorist attack, and may turn out to have been perpetrated by individuals with links to terrorist organisations, it was not an act of terrorism because drummer Rigby was a soldier. He was purposefully targeted because he was a soldier. What Greenwald fails to highlight, however, is that if the attack was indeed a case of conflict between combatants, it was a war crime.

The core of Greenwald's case is that terrorist acts must fit two criteria: firstly they must be political acts designed to spread terror among opponents, and secondly they must target civilians. The first criteria is relatively uncontroversial, but the second may draw dissent from those who have got into the habit of labeling all violent activity by extremist groups terrorism.

However, if we don't limit the definition to attacks against civilians most legitimate wartime activity would have to be classed as terrorism. Most effective military tactics emphasise terrorizing the enemy, including American "shock and awe" and the British "manoeuvrist approach to operations." There's nothing wrong with this: would we really rather our armies achieved victory through World War 1 style attrition — the methodical pulping of human life until the enemy has nothing left to fight with — or through violence targeted to break the will of our opponents.

The criteria that terrorism must target civilians makes sense because it allows us to distinguish between those who are unable to organise into a conventional army and must fight their opponents using unconventional guerrilla tactics, and those who target defenseless civilians who are not a threat and have not chosen to take a side. By distinguishing in this way, we allow a level playing field in the use of an emotive word, rather than allowing those of us who are represented by powerful states to condemn weaker opponents.

Many will argue that the fact that drummer Rigby was not in a "combat zone" and was off-duty, meaning that he should not be defined as a combatant. I see the reasoning behind this, but I cannot agree. The people of Woolwich did not choose to be part of a combat zone, but then neither do the people of Helmand or any other area torn by conflict: combat creates combat zones, not the other way around. Drummer Rigby was indeed off duty, but in Iraq and Afghanistan we have (rightly) felt no compunction about targeting insurgents in their homes and as they went about their ordinary lives.

However, if we accept that this was not an act of terrorism that does not take drummer Rigby's killers off the hook. The killers of drummer Rigby will undoubtedly be prosecuted for murder under British law. In addition, the nature of the killing means that the perpetrators could be considered war criminals: both for continuing to attack an enemy once he was incapacitated by injury, and for (it seems) attempting to mutilate his body by decapitating him.

Despite the inevitable political rhetoric, the killing of drummer Rigby was not an act of terrorism. To call it terror clouds rather than clarifies the horror of this act. It was a crime, both under British criminal law and against international laws of armed conflict, committed by extremists intent on broadcasting their objectionable philosophy through a despicable act of violence.