What made two gang members turn to jihad on London's streets?
by Jamie Doward
Clutching a placard protesting at a "Crusade against Muslims", Michael Adebolajo was a striking figure. Dressed in immaculate white robes, the young man's imposing physical presence made him stand out from the other protesters.
It was 2007 and Adebolajo was protesting outside Paddington Green police station in west London over the arrest of a fellow Muslim radical. Stern-faced but restrained, he appeared a study of peaceful radical protest. Adebolajo, 28, cut a similar figure when he and his friend Michael Adebowale, 22, were preaching in Woolwich High Street earlier this month. Indeed, of all the disturbing questions that have emerged following the horror of last week, one is particularly troubling. How could two men go from ranting outside pound shops to facing charges of murder and the attempted beheading of a soldier?
The barbaric act they are accused of is all the more shocking because of its seemingly random, almost spontaneous nature, an eruption of extreme violence using kitchen knives. Previous acts of terrorism involving liquid bombs on tubes and planes have required meticulous planning and the support of complex terrorist networks that stretch across continents. But, ostensibly, Adebolajo and Adebowale appeared to be "lone wolves", outsiders who seemed to revel in their near 20 minutes of infamy, posing for the smartphone cameras while they waited for the arrival of police, certain of how their story was to end.
The small library of video footage recorded by passersby may throw light on the men's conflicted state of mind in the immediate aftermath of Drummer Lee Rigby's murder. At one stage, Adebolajo, whose family moved from Nigeria to London in the 1980s, tells onlookers: "I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same." Moments later he calls for people to tell the government "to bring our troops back so you can all live in peace". His contradictory references to "our land" and "our troops" suggests someone struggling to understand where he is from.
But, then, trying to fit in seems to have been a problem for both men from an early age. Probation sources say that both grew up on the periphery of the violent south-east London gang scene that has seen two groups, Woolwich Boys and the Lewisham Ghetto Boys, emerge as fierce rivals.
The gangs are drawn predominantly, but not exclusively, from African and Caribbean communities. Membership confers status and the chance to make money by dealing in drugs and performing other low-level criminal acts. But the gangs themselves are also a target.
"A major concern in recent years has been the crossover between criminal groups and Islamist organisations," said Harry Fletcher, a former assistant general secretary of the probation union Napo. "It's mainly gangs in Southwark and Lambeth and we're talking about dozens, not hundreds, of members who are at risk. The Islamist groups will exploit both the gang members' psychological and economic vulnerability. They'll offer them money or drugs if they're poor or the chance of salvation if they're mentally fragile."
Both men appear to have been easy targets, desperate to find some sort of order in their chaotic lives, which were at odds with their backgrounds. Both came from loving, respectable families – Adebolajo's father is a mental health nurse, Adebowale's mother is a probation officer – but the lure of gangs appears to have proved too strong for them to resist. Adebolajo is known to have stolen mobile phones, smoked cannabis and spent a short spell behind bars for violent behaviour.
Richard Taylor OBE, whose son Damilola was stabbed to death aged 10 in Peckham, south London, was one of the figures who tried to pull Adebowala back from the clutches of gangs and drugs. When they last spoke two months ago, the Muslim convert brushed aside his mother's concerns about his behaviour and told his mentor that his life had changed for the better under Islam. In 2008 Adebowale was stabbed in an attack that left another man dead, in a drugs-related robbery.
In the hunt for answers, attention is likely to focus on Adebolajo's time at Greenwich University, which, unlike several other London institutions, has not been previously associated with radicalism.
However, the university Islamic society's inaugural annual dinner, held in January 2009, four years after Adebolajo left, was addressed by Uthman Lateef, a controversial cleric who has been banned from at least one university. Promoting the dinner, the society warned that Muslims "are now at a phase in which we are being humiliated! Our honours disgraced! Our lands robbed! And our wealth being stolen!"
The message of Muslim persecution is perpetuated by al-Muhajiroun, the Islamist group fronted by the radical Luton-based cleric Anjem Choudary, which has been rebadged under a multitude of brands since being proscribed by the previous government.
Al-Muhajiroun's founder, Omar Bakri Mohammed, a Lebanon-based preacher who is banned from Britain and once ran courses in fighting jihad at a disused nunnery in Sussex, claimed last week that he had converted Adebolajo.
More than 20 of the group's supporters have been convicted of terrorist offences including a plot to blow up the Ministry of Sound nightclub and another to detonate a bomb at a Territorial Army barracks using a remote-controlled car. Indeed, it is notable that the first Islamist attack in Britain – an attempted petrol bomb attack against a TA base in 1998 – was carried out by Amer Mirza, a student linked to al-Muhajiroun.
That both men were brought up as Christians may have made them susceptible to radicalisation, according to Irfan al Alawi, international director at the Centre for Islamic Pluralism. "If they are new Muslims they are easy prey," he said. "They won't question what they are being told. But someone from a Muslim background will think twice."
An analysis by the Henry Jackson Society, a security thinktank, estimates that 15% of Islamist terrorist offences in the UK were committed by converts.
Choudary insisted he had not seen Adebolajo for a couple of years, but Haras Rafiq, director of Centri, a counter-extremism consultancy, believes that al-Muhajiroun's influence would have lingered. "Al-Muhajiroun glorified 9/11 and the Madrid bombings," Rafiq said. "If these guys are handing out leaflets on behalf of al-Muhajiroun and going on protests for them, then they believe those sorts of acts are justified. To put it another way, if Woolwich was these guys going up to 100mph, al-Muhajiroun got them to 80."
Both Alawi and Rafiq are critical of the government for failing to tackle the Salafi [Wahhabi] strain of Islam that is promoted in the more radical mosques, where sermons beamed in from Saudi Arabia in Arabic have been used to provide a warped theology to justify jihad.
Too often, both men feel, the views of extremists have been tolerated, allowing Salafists [Wahhabis] to preach a narrative that invokes the Crusades and presents Muslims as being persecuted by the west. It is a concern that engenders bitter debate within the wider Muslim community. Several years ago one mosque with links to the two men became so bitterly divided because of the Salafi [Wahhabi] influence pushed by Bakri that it closed for a year.
The Salafi [Wahhabi] theology, which can be used to promote both violent and non-violent jihad, seems to have deeply influenced Adebolajo. Keen to live under sharia law, he tried to enter Somalia, parts of which are under the control of al-Shabaab, the armed Islamist group that promotes sharia and has close links with al-Qaida. He never made it beyond Kenya. Arrested by the country's security forces, he was allegedly assaulted and threatened with sexual abuse during a period of interrogation. He appeared in court in Mombasa in November 2010 accused of trying to cross into Somalia illegally, but was not charged. When he returned, a friend said that Adebolajo's personality had changed dramatically. There are suggestions he was traumatised by the experience.
Questions will be asked if MI5 already knew of his alleged interrogation in Kenya when they interviewed him about several individuals they were interested in on his return to the UK. It was claimed that MI5 had asked Adebolajo if he was interested in working for them, a not uncommon offer with the security services desperate to acquire intelligence assets.
The scale of the investigation and the need for reliable sources of information became even more apparent last night as the Metropolitan police arrested three men aged 21, 24 and 28 on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder. The police used a Taser to apprehend the suspects at an address in south-east London.
There were concerns, meanwhile, that the Woolwich murder had inspired a copycat attack in Paris. A French soldier was stabbed in the neck while on anti-terrorism duties in the French capital. Police were hunting for his attacker, whom they described as of north African origin and bearded. The 25-year-old soldier survived but was taken to hospital with serious injuries. The Woolwich murder has dominated headlines in France since it happened.
Adebolajo's experiences echo those of another Briton, Mohammed Ezzouek, who, along with three others, was held in a crowded Kenya prison cell in 2007. According to documents filed by the men's lawyers the four "were regularly taken from the police stations where they were being detained to a hotel suite where they were interrogated by MI5 agents. In the course of interrogations, the agents made veiled threats to the men, including asking one of them if he had 'heard of Guantánamo Bay.'"
Ezzouek told the Observer that one of the British agents warned him: "For your people, there's no such things as solicitors, lawyers; you're another breed."
The passage of young Muslim Britons through Kenya and on to Somalia has become a concern for intelligence analysts who fear the country is becoming a breeding ground for jihad. The security services claimed in 2011 that more than 100 Britons had been involved in training with al-Shabaab in recent years, prompting fears of "blowback" if they returned.
Experts say that the recent relative stability of the region in the past couple of years is making it a more attractive destination for young Muslim men to visit. This concern is one reason why Britain has funded the construction of a new anti-terrorism centre in Kenya, which opened this month.
Al-Shabaab's chief spokesman, an American convert, Omar Shafik Hammami, also known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, has run a slick, rap-fuelled propaganda operation on social media sites such as YouTube and Twitter, which draws a large following among young Muslims in the west. Placed on the FBI's most wanted list, Hammami, who has a $5m bounty on his head, was apparently killed this month by members of al-Shabaab who had accused him of narcissism. One of this last tweets read: "Even if we die we've won."
[CIP Note: This article also appeared in the Irish Independent of May 28, 2013, accessible at http://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/what-turned-two-young-men-into-bloodsoaked-butchers-29297413.html, and in The Japan Times of May 29, 2013, at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/05/29/world/britain-examines-why-two-gang-members-turned-to-jihad/#.UaT_a-hwapo.
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