Yesterday afternoon in Woolwich, South London, two men ran over a soldier from the local army barracks, before getting out of their car and hacking at his body with machetes, while shouting "Allahu Akbar!" (God is great). Immediately after the attack, the two men—who were armed with a variety of weapons—spoke at length to bystanders and made political statements on camera, before police arrived on the scene and attempted to secure the area. After 20 minutes, the police's armed response team finally arrived, shooting them both. The soldier died at the scene and the two attackers—who expressed religious and political motives for the murder—are currently in hospital. The case is being treated by the police, the government, and the media as a terrorist attack.
The story emerged quickly yesterday through a mess of unconfirmed eyewitness reports and social media posts—most prominently through Twitter user @BOYADEE, who relayed events to the world in a flurry of 11 tweets starting at 3:09 PM and 3:33 PM [all sic/gic]:
"Ohhhhh myyyy God!!!! I just see a man with hishead chopped off right in front of my eyes!" he said. "The two black bredas run this white guy over over then hop out the car and start chopping mans head off with machete!!
"People were asking whyyy whyyy they were just saying we've had enough! They looked like they were on sutn! Then they start waving a recolver.
"The first guy goes for the female fed with the machete and she not even ramping she took man out like robocop never seen nutn like it. Then the next breda try buss off the rusty 45 and it just backfires and blows mans finger clean off... Feds didnt pet to just take him out!!
"These times i was just going to the shop for some fruit and veg and i see all that!"
The fact that the attack was carried out in broad daylight in front of horrified onlookers, and that the attackers seemed calm enough to speak at length to those onlookers about their motives, only served to reinforce the shock. The fact that the incident took place on the aptly named Artillery Place wasn’t enough to mask the sense of horror shared by everyone.
Talking to a filming bystander in a chillingly calm voice for somebody with blood quite literally on a machete in his hands, one of the attackers said: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. I apologize that women had to witness this today, but in our lands our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you."
In a separate piece of footage, the man added: "You think David Cameron is going to get caught in the street when we start bussin' our guns? You think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy, like you and your children.
"So get rid of them. Tell them to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace."
Once we had finished staring at the initial reports on our laptops in disbelief, we headed down to Woolwich to gauge people’s reactions.
We arrived to a heavy police presence which seemed to be dwarfed by the media scrum. The ubiquitous police helicopter buzzed noisily overhead. Unsurprisingly, everyone we spoke to was surprised at what had happened.
Julia Wilders, a 51-year-old local, told us what she saw. “The blue car was crashed against the lamppost. My husband went: ‘Oh look, there’s two people trying to resuscitate someone.’ So we walked back to have a look. And then suddenly we saw a tall black guy come with a gun. So my husband went: ‘No, get back,’ and he phoned the police... The police turned up and he ran towards them with meat cleavers before they could even get out of the car, so they shot him. And the other one looked like he was going to lift the gun up so they shot him as well."
Israel Ali, 62, told us how cohesive the community usually is: “I’m a Muslim. It’s quite peaceful here. I’ve been here for 20 years. I’m really surprised,” he said. Is there usually any ill-feeling between the locals and the soldiers in the barracks? “It’s very friendly. When they come out in public they say ‘Hello’ and we say ‘Hello.'”
Eighty-three-year-old Maurice Edwards told us, “You don’t get trouble in Woolwich most of the time. I’ve been here 46 years and there has never been any trouble with the soldiers in the barracks. We happened to be in a cafe having a meal. We decided to have a sandwich and a cup of tea, which was just as well because I would have been caught in the bloody middle of it. I’m not that keen on guns, not when there’s bullets flying around!"
Richard, a young Muslim, who didn’t want to be photographed, was concerned at the reports that the murder was linked to terrorism: "I hope that what they are suggesting is not right. I’m a Muslim myself, and this is a big issue to our community. And if it turns out that it was a terrorist attack it will really affect the Muslims in this community. That’ll be a huge disappointment.” Was he afraid of the potential for anti-Muslim reprisals? “Yes. That’s what I’m really scared of.”
As the sun began to set, it seemed increasingly likely that Richard's fears would be realized. Reacting to the attack with their typical sense of balance and serenity, the EDL had tweeted: "CONFIRMED WE HAVE BEEN SUBJECT TO A TERROR ATTACK BY ISLAM, WE ARE CURRENTLY UNDER ATTACK." So it was only a matter of time until Britain's far-right Strongbow squadron turned up to do something about the situation. Despite the fact the killers were already lying in hospital with gunshot wounds, undoubtedly soon to be tried for one of the most widely witnessed and well-documented murders in British legal history.
We hung around the local train station, expecting them to arrive there in their furious, pissed-up hordes. But we didn't quite get the mass we were expecting—just a couple of slightly lost-looking fascists intent on defending the area from an imaginary Muslim militia.
Nothing much happened until we followed some police cars to a pub that had been chosen as the rally point for any EDL wanting to get in on the action. An English flag had been erected on a fence and a large group of shouty, pint-toting EDL were being held back by police in riot gear. More EDL started to emerge to yell abuse at the press and recycle their tired rally cries of, "Muzzie bombers off our streets!" "Shut down all the mosques!" and a bunch of other stuff that blindly tarred every single Muslim living in Britain as an abhorrent, extremist murderer.
By the time they'd all finished up their drinks and made their way outside, there were around 60 or 70 EDL standing outside the pub. There were minor scuffles as the police tried to stop them from advancing, before Tommy Robinson—EDL leader and recent perpetrator of identity fraud—stood up to deliver his speech.
The speech was much as you'd expect. Tommy, a man touting himself as a defender of the British people, exploiting the death of a British man to preach hate and intolerance against other British citizens. He kept repeating stuff like, "enough is enough" and "better late than never," but the speech fizzled out a little when he realized he'd exhausted his catchphrases, so encouraged everyone to march into the center of town (which was one street away).
Someone presented a box of EDL-branded balaclavas, which prompted a wild rush of screaming and grabbing hands. Anyone who didn't manage to get hold of a balaclava looked a little dejected, covered their faces with their hands and followed the mob into the town center.
Everyone continued to shout anti-Islamic slurs and a few began chucking bottles at police—a move that was met with shouts of, "No bottles! Slow down! Let's properly fuck this place up!" By "this place," it's fair to assume they meant the nearby Islamic cultural center, but there's no confirmation of that as yet.
Once the police managed to get themselves in place, a group of EDL found themselves cornered, angering the rest of the mob, who began lobbing more bottles and random masonry towards the riot cops. A pack of them tried charging through to save their trapped comrades, but were quickly put down by a retaliatory police baton charge.
The whole EDL effort was even less organized than usual and really achieved nothing but another embarrassing set of headlines for Tommy and his boys. They'd effectively gone in to prove that there are still proper British patriots out there who will defend the country from mindless violence, before being mindlessly violent, throwing a tantrum, and being sent home to write badly-worded expressions of hate on their Facebook profiles.
Today, two houses have been searched, one an address in Lincolnshire, the other in Greenwich. Both properties are believed to be the homes of the suspects and three women and a teenage boy were led away from the latter address by police. Following a COBRA meeting yesterday attended by David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and police and intelligence agencies, armed forces have been warned to be vigilant when off-base and to conceal their uniforms wherever possible.
"One of the best ways of defeating terrorism is to go about our normal lives," said Cameron in a speech given to media outside Downing Street this morning, "and that is what we should all do."
The soldier's family have asked for his identity to be withheld from the public for now, but reports indicate that he served one tour of Afghanistan. The attacker filmed speaking to the camera with the meat cleaver is thought to be a man of Nigerian descent named Michael Adebolajo, a convert to Islam in 2003 who had attended lectures by controversial Islamic preacher Anjem Choudary.
With reports of mosques being attacked and an EDL rally planned to take place in Newcastle on Saturday, the next few days will be a crucial measure of any anti-Islamic backlash. Hopefully the handful of assholes attempting to leech political traction from this horrific and isolated event will be met with public derision. After all, it's worth remembering that for all of our faults, most of us aren't murderous fanatics or bigoted idiots. We're just people who don't like it when other people get murdered with machetes in the street.
Images by Mirror Image Photos and Simon Childs. Find more photos of the EDL's battle with police here.
Follow Simon and VICE News on Twitter: @SimonChilds13
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