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London murder highlights 'lone wolf' terrorist concerns

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Sang Tan/AP

(Read caption) Police officers lay down floral tributes handed to them by members of the public at the scene of a terror attack in Woolwich, southeast London, Thursday. The British government’s emergency committee met Thursday after two attackers killed a man in a daylight attack in London that raised fears terrorism had returned to the capital.

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• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

In a perplexing, brutal attack in London yesterday, two men assaulted and killed a British soldier with a meat cleaver in broad daylight, and then remained at the scene and spoke about their actions, which they said were revenge for British involvement in wars in the Muslim world.

The attack, coming while last month's bombing at the Boston Marathon is still fresh in the public's mind, highlights the threat of "lone wolves," or individuals who commit terrorist acts on their own, without any affiliation with the large terrorist networks that governments have been tracking assiduously.

Little information about the attackers has been disclosed, but Reuters reports that authorities are treating the attack like a terrorist act. The Counter Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police is handling the investigation, according to police. Both suspects are in custody.

"I am afraid it is overwhelmingly likely now to be a terrorist attack, the kind the city has seen before," London Mayor Boris Johnson said.

Speaking from France, where he was until cutting the visit short to return to Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron said, "The police are urgently seeking the full facts about this case but there are strong indications that it is a terrorist incident."  

In footage filmed by an onlooker, one of the men – with the meat cleaver still in one hand and the other hand visibly bloodied – said he was taking revenge for British involvement in wars in the Muslim world, Reuters reports.

"We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day," he shouted. "This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."

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"I apologize that women had to witness that, but in our lands our women have to see the same thing. You people will never be safe. Remove your government. They don't care about you," he said.

According to Reuters, British counterterrorism chiefs "recently warned that radicalized individuals posed as great a risk as those who plotted attacks" on the London subway in 2005.

The New York Times reports that Britain has "suffered more than any other country in northern Europe from Islamic terrorist plots in recent years, and it has worked assiduously to prevent more. Security officials have said that at any given time they are tracking hundreds of young men in extremist networks."

But "small-scale attacks can be hard to detect," the Times notes.

Reuters reports that British soldiers have been a target at home before, as British involvement overseas has stirred anger of British Muslims, and that British authorities thwarted "at least two major plots" by Muslim extremists to kill members of the military.

Baroness Neville-Jones, a former security minister and chairwoman of the joint intelligence committee, and Col. Richard Kemp, who commanded British troops in Afghanistan, called for a crackdown on extremist websites, which they said could have inspired the attack, the Telegraph reports.

“What we shouldn’t forget is that even if there is nobody else behind it one of the things which runs through the scene at the moment is the inspiration that comes from internet hate preaching and jihadist rhetoric and this is a very, very serious problem now,” [Ms. Neville-Jones] said.

The Muslim Council of Britain condemned the killing as a “truly barbaric” act with “no basis in Islam”.

Lady Neville-Jones added: “I do think it’s very welcome that Muslim leadership in the UK have roundly condemned this. That’s very reassuring and very helpful. But I do think there’s a further task that Muslim leadership in this country does need to help with … we need to redouble our efforts in tackling the spread of this kind of rhetoric.”

[Mr. Kemp] said that “one of the biggest priorities” for the security services should now be looking at the role the Internet plays in “motivating people” to commit terrorist attacks.

“I think it is possible that it will be further attacks will be inspired by this attack,” he said. “One of the biggest priorities for the services is to look at the role of the internet in motivating people and look very carefully at which radical sites should be suppressed on the internet as well as of course more direct preaching in some of the mosques in this country which has caused some people to turn to radicalism and terrorism before.”

Brooke Rogers, a senior lecturer in risk and terror at King's College London, said to the BBC: "I do think [extremist] websites are a significant problem. People can find the information if they want it and I think that is a problem. We very much need to keep a balance between freedom to access information and understand the nature of individuals and the psychological processes that occur when they see this information."

CBSNews.com foreign editor Tucker Reals notes, however, that Islamist activists in Britain "are careful in their street preaching and online propaganda to never specifically call for violence. They know incitement is illegal, and they're smart enough to stay on the right side of the letter of the law – to be able to continue propagating their message."

One of those activists, London lawyer Anjem Choudary, was quick to defend the perpetrators of the London attack.

"Woolwich is a lesson for us all, we must take the role of the UK in Muslim land seriously & its harsh repercussions on the streets of the UK," Choudary tweeted just hours after the attack in south London's economically depressed Woolwich neighborhood, where he spent at least part of his own young life.

Speaking to CBS News Wednesday night, after the murder, Choudary said he thought he might have recognized one of the suspects from his rallies or sermons.

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