Inside bizarre world of the Big Friendly Giant
by Jamie Doward
Nicky Reilly was on MI5's radar but not considered a threat, because of his autism. Three days ago, bloodied and shaken, he emerged from the scene of a bomb attack as the main suspect. Jamie Doward reports
Nicky Reilly, who was arrested following an explosion at the Giraffe restaurant in the Princesshay shopping centre in Exeter. Photograph: PA
Nicky Reilly was just a teenager when he first came to the attention of the security services four years ago. Already a hulk of a youth, the boy dubbed the Big Friendly Giant by his neighbours because of his enormous frame, had fallen in with a group of Muslim men in his native Plymouth.
Reilly, who has the mental age of a 10-year-old and suffers from autism, was 18 at the time and seemed to find support from a new group of people after his friendship with a girl had ended. But it appears that at least one of the men was what MI5 calls 'a person of interest', someone being monitored on suspicion of harbouring terrorist intentions.
'They had a look at him four years ago,' said one well-placed counter-terrorism source. 'He was very much on the periphery of the group. There was nothing about him that gave cause for alarm. They were aware he had the mental age of a child.'
It seems that Reilly was discounted as a credible threat and not placed under surveillance. A security service source confirmed: 'We keep snippets of information on individuals for a number of years and would hope to find traces of him on our system, but he was not someone who was under active investigation.'
Given the myriad pressures on the service the decision is understandable, but it is not the first time someone has come to MI5's attention but not been monitored. Mohammad Sidique Khan, ringleader of the 7/7 attacks in London, cropped up in another investigation but had not been placed under surveillance with tragic consequences.
The question confronting the service, however, is how someone can go from the periphery of a group operating in a part of Britain unknown for extremist activity to apparently harbour ambitions of becoming a suicide bomber. Devon and Cornwall police believe Reilly, now 22, was influenced by extremists who brainwashed him. Deputy chief constable Tony Melville said: 'We believe that, despite his weak and vulnerable state, he was preyed upon, radicalised and taken advantage of.'
Melville's decision to speak out has dismayed the Home Office, who fear the move could jeopardise ongoing operational activities. And counter-terrorism sources warn the investigation is at too early a stage to make claims that an organised terrorist cell is operating in the West Country. 'To be radicalised without contact with others is pretty rare,' one source admitted. 'Most extremists have associated with other extremists, but that doesn't mean he didn't go off and act alone. It's a long way from being established that this person has been exploited.'
It is claimed, however, that shortly before Reilly walked into the Giraffe restaurant in Exeter on Thursday afternoon, he had been sent a text message of encouragement, suggesting that at least one other person had also been aware of what Reilly was allegedly planning to do. Fortunately for the restaurant's diners, the device - made from sodium hydroxide and paraffin and surrounded by nails - failed to go off properly.
'It was very crude,' one person familiar with its construction said. 'The odds of it being used effectively were low. He was a rank amateur.' Another device was later found nearby and made safe.
The 6ft 1in, 18-stone Muslim convert, who once collected James Bond memorabilia, was left bloodied and burned but not seriously hurt. Witnesses said he was in a state of shock and was muttering about the treatment of Muslims in Britain when police arrived. He is now under armed guard in hospital, where police are waiting to question him.
On Friday, in what police say is a fast-moving operation, another man was arrested in Plymouth when armed officers raided a cafe. Eyewitnesses told how shoppers fled, fearing a terror attack, as armed officers pointed their weapons 'point blank' at two men. Rebecca Pope, 25, said she had heard shouting and had seen police pointing their guns at the men, sitting at a table outside the cafe with a child in a pushchair. She said both had been searched, put into paper suits and placed in unmarked cars, while the pushchair was taken away by a policewoman: 'Everyone was screaming.'
Yesterday, as a second man was being questioned by police as a witness, neighbours reiterated their shock that Reilly could be capable of harbouring ambitions to become a suicide bomber.
Alli Turner, 17, who lives on the same estate as Reilly, said he was a loner who spent most of his time surfing the net in his small boxroom in the council flat where he lived with his mother, Kim.
'He didn't talk to many people,' Turner said. 'He was a bit of a recluse, he did not have many friends.' And he repeated the view that Reilly was influenced by extremists: 'If you get brainwashed, you get brainwashed.'
Certainly Reilly, a familiar sight on his estate where he would often be seen walking his lurcher dog, seems to fit the classic type targeted by extremists for conversion: a socially awkward outsider from a deprived background. His brother Luke, 20, a drug addict, is serving six years in prison for kicking a man unconscious during a robbery. Reilly himself has a history of mental health problems and has tried to commit suicide several times. His age may also be significant. Though the government is primarily concerned about Muslim youth becoming radicalised, experts warn that it is older radicals who are more likely to turn to violence.
'In my studies, I have found extremists tend to be converts over the age of 21,' said Dr Irfan al-Alawi, international director of the Centre for Islamic Pluralism. 'These are the people who are seduced by promises that they can enter the gates to paradise.'
A practising Muslim for more than five years, it was only recently that Reilly appeared to espouse extremist views, having changed his name to Mohammed Rasheed. He had turned on his family, branding them 'infidels'. 'He started to hate us,' said his stepfather, Phil Dinner. 'He went on about how he'd die and find Allah and lasting paradise.'
There were other clues that Reilly may have been harbouring disturbing obsessions. Neighbours claimed he had a screensaver of the Twin Towers in flames from the 9/11 attacks on his home computer and would often watch a video of the atrocity.
Neighbours recall him regularly using a local internet cafe. 'He used to come in quite often,' said one visitor to the cafe. 'He was normally accompanied by two younger men in Islamic dress. They hung around chatting outside. I assumed they were on their way to the mosque.'
A police team based at Ashburton, Devon, is urgently going through computers used by Reilly to see who he has been contacting. They are also examining his mobile phone records.
Crucial to the investigation will be what happened to Reilly in the missing months leading up to last Thursday. For years he had attended a number of respected local mosques and Muslim community centres which have never had any connection with extremist elements in the past. Sources in the Muslim world also told The Observer that Reilly was sometimes seen with members of Exeter University's Islamic society and would attend their halaqas - study circles. But local religious leaders say Reilly had not been seen for the last six months and there are suggestions he had become disillusioned with the mosques' style of worship, preferring the company of a smaller group of Muslim men whom he would meet at a local fish-and-chip shop and a halal fast-food shack.
'Many converts to Islam have a sound spiritual reason,' said Haras Rafiq, executive director of the Sufi Muslim Council. 'But there are also some who get brainwashed by extremists because they don't have the mental foundations to counter their arguments. These people preach the rhetoric of anger and social injustice, conditions which make a good hunting ground for extremists.'
Rafiq said the grooming of vulnerable people for suicide missions was well documented in the Middle East and claimed that there had been cases of terrorist organisations hacking patient health records to identify the vulnerable.
But there is incredulity that such tactics could possibly be employed in one of the sleepier parts of the UK. More worrying is that the threat of terrorism appears to be spreading across the UK. 'The government has been focusing on major cities, so it makes sense for extremists to move into other regions,' Rafiq said.
The security service, MI5, has anticipated this trend, opening up regional stations to gather intelligence on suspected extremists. Last Thursday proved one of the busier days for its new West Country bureau. Whether Reilly was an innocent victim, maverick loner or a pawn will determine just how busy the bureau will be in the months to come.
Note: The content of external articles does not necessarily reflect the views of Center for Islamic Pluralism.