The call came at 2:20 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon. When the first police officers turned into John Wilson Street in the Woolwich neighborhood of southeast London a short time later, they were greeted with a sickening sight: A young man lay on the street, covered in blood. Nearby stood a pair of men, one holding a pistol and the other a butcher knife and a meat cleaver.
One of the offers opened fire when one of the perpetrators began approaching her police car. Both suspected attackers were taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds. But for the badly injured victim, a British soldier, help came too late.
The two men were not shy about broadcasting their motives, praising Allah at the scene and using rhetoric often heard in Islamist videos. Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron, in Paris on Wednesday for talks with French President François Hollande, was quick to say that there were "strong indications that it is a terrorist attack." He quickly returned to London and is chairing a meeting of the government's emergency response committee, Cobra, on Thursday to discuss further security measures.
Shocked eyewitnesses reported that the two men slaughtered their target, a soldier from the nearby Royal Artillery Barracks, like an animal. "They were hacking at this poor guy, literally," an eyewitness identified as James told the local radio station LBC. They were treating him, he said, "like a piece of meat." Dozens of people were in the area at the time of the attack and photos and videos appeared almost immediately on the Internet.
"I first thought it was a car collision," Lauren Collins, who lives in the area, told the BBC. But then she learned what had happened. "I hope that nothing more happens," she said.
Possible Connection to Nigeria
The murder in full daylight raised a number of immediate questions. Witnesses reported that the perpetrators, both black men, posed for photos at the scene of the crime and made no effort to flee, apparently preferring to wait for police to arrive. Officials have released no details regarding the identities of the murderers, but Reuters is reporting on Thursday that officials are looking into a possible connection to Nigeria.
The perpetrators left little doubt as to the motivation for the brutal killing. On Wednesday evening, broadcaster ITV aired a mobile phone video made by a witness. It shows one of the perpetrators, hands covered in blood and holding a knife, saying directly into the camera: "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." The man, who appears to be in his 20s or 30s, then says: "The British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth."
The man spoke with a London accent, leading observers to conclude that he is a local. He added: "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."
The British tabloid The Sun shows more scenes from the same video on its website. In one of them, the perpetrator demands: "Tell them to bring out troops back so we -- so you -- can all live in peace." The wording recalls that found in videos made by Islamist terrorists when claiming responsibility for attacks. Still, it was initially unclear whether the attackers had any connection with terrorist groups or were simply uttering similar phrases.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who had been in Brussels for an EU summit before driving to Paris together with Hollande, immediately called an emergency meeting of the Cobra committee. Home Secretary Theresa May, Secretary of State for Defence Philip Hammond and London Mayor Boris Johnson were kept abreast of developments by Scotland Yard as were MI5 and MI6, the domestic and foreign intelligence services, respectively. The meetings clearly indicate that the British government is treating the incident as an Islamist attack.
Combating the 'Forces of Hatred'
Speaking at a news conference at the Élysée Palace in Paris, Cameron said: "We have had these sorts of attacks before in our country, and we never buckle in the face of them." Cameron then quickly returned to London, while Labour opposition leader Ed Milibrand cancelled a planned visit to Germany.
British police appealed to residents to remain calm and avoid "unnecessary speculation." The fact that it has not raised the terror warning level would seem to indicate that the government does not fear additional attacks. However, police presence was heightened in Woolwich. Officers on Wednesday evening halted a demonstration in Woolwich as about 50 members of the far-right English Defence League began shouting insulting slogans about the Koran and singing nationalist songs.
Several Muslim organizations have strongly condemned the attack. "This is a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam," the Muslim Council of Britain said in a statement released Wednesday. "This action will no doubt heighten tensions on the streets of the United Kingdom." The council called on all Muslims and non-Muslims alike to "come together in solidarity to ensure the forces of hatred do not prevail."
Despite these various calls for peace, there have already been reports of anti-Muslim actions. One member of parliament reported via Twitter that a 43-year-old had been arrested after forcing his way into a London mosque armed with a knife. A second man has reportedly been arrested in southeast England on suspicion of racially motivated property damage.