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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

UK Muslims fear backlash after soldier's murder

Mosques vandalised, Muslim students warned to stay indoors and an extra 1,200 police deployed around London, as British prime minister warns against knee-jerk reactions. Omar Karmi reports
London mayor Boris Johnson (centre) walks under police tape near the scene of the killing of a British soldier in Woolwich.
London mayor Boris Johnson (centre) walks under police tape near the scene of the killing of a British soldier in Woolwich.

LONDON //Fears are rising of a backlash against UK Muslims as the investigation into the murder of a British soldier in broad daylight gathers momentum.

The British prime minister David Cameron chaired a meeting of the Cobra security crisis committee as investigators began to focus on whether this was an isolated incident, or the perpetrators were connected to known terrorist groups.

Both suspects were shot at the scene of the crime on Wednesday and are being held under armed guard in separate hospitals.

One has been identified as Michael Adebolajo, said to be from a devout Christian family, and a later convert to Islam who grew up in the Woolwich area.

They are British citizens of Nigerian origin and known to British intelligence services, reports say.

The London police counter-terrorism unit is leading the investigation into the attack that killed Lee Rigby, 25, a machine-gunner who had served in Afghanistan.

Mr Cameron said the attack "sickened us all", and warned against knee-jerk reaction.

"This was not just an attack on Britain, and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to this country."

"There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act."

An extra 1,200 police offers were deployed in London yesterday but reports of reprisals against Muslims did filter through.

The Measuring Anti Muslim Attacks website said six mosques across Britain were vandalised in the 24 hours after the Woolwich attack.

There were two arrests in connection with anti-Muslim attacks. In Braintree, in the southern county of Kent, one man was apprehended after walking into a mosque with a knife and a smoke bomb.

Another was arrested in Gillingham, also in Kent, under suspicion of "racially aggravated criminal damage" to a mosque there.

Far-right nationalists reacted predictably to the death of the soldier as about 120 members of the far-right English Defence League (EDL) clashed with police late on Wednesday on the streets of Woolwich in south-east London, not far from the attack.

EDL supporters chanted anti-Muslim slogans, and Tommy Robinson, a local EDL leader, described Islam as a fascist and violent religion.

The EDL, formed specifically in reaction to protests by some British Muslims at the return of British soldiers' bodies from Iraq and Afghanistan, posted on its website yesterday that the attack was a reminder to the British public that "we are at war".

A police spokesman said the force had not only stepped up its presence outside army bases across the English capital, but also around mosques and other places of worship.

Earlier advice for military personnel to not wear uniform was relaxed later yesterday.

Muslim organisations across Britain had been quick to condemn the attack.

The Muslim Council of Britain on Wednesday denounced the killing as savage, while the Federation of Muslim Organisations described it as appalling.

Even radical clerics such as Anjem Choudary, who co-founded the now-banned Al Muhajiroun movement that organised protests at the return of soldiers' bodies, said such violence "could not be condoned".

The Federation of Student Islamic Societies yesterday warned Muslim students to stay indoors.

But the East London Mosque, which caters to London's biggest Muslim community, did not deliver similar messages to its congregation because it did not wish to cause pandemonium, said Salman Farsi, a mosque spokesman.

The mosque has stepped up security, however, and Mr Farsi said tensions were very high.

"The EDL march caused tensions to spike and we've already received threats," he said.

Mr Farsi said police took up a "very high visibility" presence outside the mosque, in the largely Asian area of Whitechapel in East London.

He predicted tensions would remain high and the mosque would remain on alert for at least a couple of days.

Streets remained cordoned off where the attack occurred as investigators gathered evidence and began trying to piece together not just what happened, but why.

There is some suggestion that one of the suspects, Mr Adebolajo, first came to the notice of British security forces when he was thwarted in an apparent attempt to join Al Shabab in Somalia.

The investigation is still in its early stages but one thing at least seems clear: the attackers were not concerned about being caught, said Matthew Henman, a senior analyst at IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

The two suspects stayed and engaged passers-by in the time it took police to reach the scene. One, hands bloodied and brandishing a knife, even apologised on camera that "women had to see this", but said it had been done in revenge for British military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Their actions suggested the attack was intended for the public to see, and that the two had thought about how to transmit their message directly and as far as possible, Mr Henman said.

He said they engaged passers-by peacefully but then attacked police when they arrived, suggesting they might have counted on being "martyred".

So far, no organisation has claimed responsibility for the attack and security forces will be looking hard for links.

It is much easier from a counter-terrorism perspective if links were discovered, said Mr Henman, because those kinds of link are there to monitor.

A greater fear is that the two men acted of their own accord.

"It is much more difficult to identify so-called lone wolves, or people who self-radicalise," Mr Henman said.

okarmi@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting from Agence France-Presse

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