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London Nail Bombings

The Far-Right Views Behind the London Bombings of 1999

David Copeland put people into neat categories that could never mix, but his worldview was a warped and violent one – and it's worth remembering, 20 years later, how others get to his point.

by Sita Balani
25 April 2019, 8:15am

Left: Gary Shilling, holding his boot, which had been hit by a nail from the bomb in Brixton. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo. Right: Firemen on Brick Lane. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

On the 13th of June, 2016, thousands of Londoners gathered on Old Compton Street to mourn the 49 people killed in the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Florida. The attack – then the deadliest "lone wolf" shooting in American history – showed that the ascendancy of gay rights had not annulled the fatal threat of homophobia.

The vigil took place outside the Admiral Duncan, where, in 1999, a nail bomb had exploded, killing three people and injuring 76 more. The homophobic shooting in Florida stirred painful memories in London’s gay community, but like all memories, this recollection of the nail bomb was partial and contingent.

David Copeland’s attack on the Admiral Duncan was the third homemade nail bomb he had planted over three weekends.

The first, in Brixton, was aimed at London’s black community; it exploded on Electric Lane, a busy thoroughfare, on Saturday the 17th of April, injuring 49 people, nine of whom needed surgery, including a two-year-old boy with a nail lodged in his skull.

The second nail bomb, on Brick Lane the following Saturday, was aimed at the Bangladeshi community. A passer-by spotted the bag and placed it in the boot of his car to take to the police station, though it exploded in the car before it could be disassembled, injuring 13 people and causing significant damage to nearby buildings and vehicles.

The third attack, the one that is most frequently remembered, was at the Admiral Duncan, on Friday the 30th of April. While this final bombing was the only one with fatalities, in disconnecting these murders from the Brixton and Brick Lane attacks the larger political significance of the "London Nailbomber" – his adherence to a racist ideology that melded mainstream politics with far-right conspiracy theory – is easily obscured.

As in all cases of this nature, Copeland’s biography came under fierce scrutiny, pored over for signs of why, when and how he developed the desire to maim, murder and destroy. Did this compulsion constitute a mental illness? If not, what did his attack mean? Though Copeland was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he insisted – and a judge ruled – that the bombs were politically motivated. What kind of politics can be found in such wanton destruction?

In order to understand the politics of these bombings, we must consider how Copeland himself viewed his actions. He had little first-hand experience of London and, as such, he chose his targets based on the stories and images to which he had access. Though his desire for destruction was perverse and grotesque, he was reacting to conventional and mainstream ideas about the city's "minorities".

Copeland grew up in Yateley, Hampshire, 35 miles southwest of the capital, and moved to London in 1997 when he began a job working with his father as an engineer’s assistant on the huge underground extension to the Jubilee Line. By the time he lived in the city itself, however, his vision of its decline was already in place.

Copeland’s choice of targets can only be understood in the context of the preceding decades, in which Britain’s "ethnic minorities" came to be known primarily through urban space. Areas became associated with racial groups, such as Notting Hill and Bayswater with new arrivals from the Caribbean; Wembley and Southall with migrants from South Asia. Many viewed these new dwellers of post-war London as interlopers, and their claims to the city and use of its spaces were always under scrutiny.

In his confession, Copeland cited the neo-Nazi bombing of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as a key moment of inspiration, lodging in his mind the absence of a similar attack in London: "It was that Centennial Park bombing. The Notting Hill Carnival was on at the same time, and I just thought, 'Why, why, why can't someone blow that place up?'"

Characteristic of capital cities, London is seen across the political spectrum as a fraught symbol of national identity. The far-right view London as “overrun” by migrants: on Question Time in 2009, Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, stated that the city had been “ethnically cleansed” and was “no longer British”. A similar view evidently influenced Copeland; he imagined an urban hierarchy within which white men had been unjustly demoted, and London’s black communities had the run of its streets.

For his first two targets, Brixton and Brick Lane, Copeland did not visit the areas to conduct reconnaissance: instead, he chose them based on their associations with the Caribbean and Bangladeshi communities respectively. In both of these attacks, he was surprised by what he found.

In Brixton, he was surprised that not everyone was black:

"I always thought Brixton was... I mean, I'd stand out like a sore thumb. I didn't. It's quite multicultural now. That surprised me. I thought about it and then I thought... 'Well... I'm here now.' I'd say one in ten people could have been white. But I didn't care about hurting them anyway. If they want to live there, it's up to them."

Copeland sees that Brixton is less "foreign" – perhaps more British – than he had anticipated. Copeland’s stuttering logic produces two reasons to continue with his plan. The first is the ticking bomb in his bag; the second, an afterthought, is that the white people who chose to live in Brixton did so in full knowledge of its racial makeup. He views them as race-traitors.

Similarly in Brick Lane, Copeland found himself caught out: he had been expecting a crowded market but he had picked the wrong day: “I presumed there was going to be a market of some sort up there, but it wasn't. So then I was in two minds whether to disassemble the device and go, you know, come back Sunday. Then I just... you know, decided." As Copeland’s dualistic vision falls apart in the face of the city’s diversity, the possibility of destruction, the act of planting a bomb, is the means to cohere the dissonance he feels.

Copeland’s miscalculations regarding the street life of Brixton and Brick Lane reveal his minimal experience of London beyond the tube and the squalid Bermondsey bedsits in which he briefly lived. His ignorance of the city foreshadows that of more recent "lone wolf" attackers.

Darren Osborne, who drove a van into worshippers at Finsbury Park mosque in 2017, leaving one dead and nine seriously injured, had scant knowledge of the city. He had driven to London from Wales, intending to plough his hired van into the Quds Day march, a pro-Palestinian event that he assumed would have a largely Muslim attendance – yet he knew nothing of how large protests in London are contained and policed, with blocked roads preventing access to the march route.

Eventually realising that it would be impossible to carry out his original plan, Osborne asked numerous passers-by for directions as he searched for a suitable target, settling on the criteria of a mosque in Jeremy Corbyn's constituency. Like Copeland, he was not from London, and the city in his imagination was vague and conspiratorial, a place of marauding foreigners, aided and abetted by treacherous whites.

As Copeland’s lurid cityscape falls apart in the face of the real London's, going ahead with the attacks is a way to create the chaos he believes is endemic to multiracial societies. The basic premise of Copeland’s attacks was not primarily murder, but provocation. He took this idea from The Turner Diaries, a novel by an American white nationalist, widely cited as inspiring or influencing neo-Nazis on both sides of the Atlantic. According to his own confession aired on the BBC’s Panorama:

"If you've read The Turner Diaries, you know the year 2000 there'll be the uprising and all that, racial violence on the streets. My aim was political. It was to cause a racial war in this country. There'd be a backlash from the ethnic minorities, then all the white people will go out and vote BNP.”

Copeland’s use of the term “ethnic minorities” requires some consideration: it is clearly the language of the state – of policy reports and service provision – yet there is no other term he can find that would encompass the various groups he intended to target.

His use of this jargon indicates some similarity between the imagination of the far-right and that of the putatively liberal state. The sense of prophecy from Copeland, the implication that "the uprising" has been foretold, places the bombings in a pre-written history, yet one that is almost devoid of substance. The specifics of political rupture he envisages are hopelessly contradictory. He expects that the “racial violence on the streets” – an idea he invests with some defining glory – won’t be enough to restore a homogenous national community: instead, he assumes change will come at the ballot box.

This irruption of cataclysmic visions into electoral politics has become frighteningly familiar to us in recent years, with the murder of MP Jo Cox a few days before the EU referendum vote carried out by Thomas Mair, who cited Copeland as a source of inspiration.

These “lone wolves” may be solitary figures taking extreme action, but they watch the same television programmes and read the same newspapers as everyone else­ – an uncomfortable fact that has never been clearer than in the aftermath of the massacre of 50 Muslims during Friday prayers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. As Mehdi Hasan notes in The Intercept, reading through the shooter’s manifesto, there are clear echoes of the Islamophobic statements made by media pundits.

The “lone wolf” has never been an alien intruder, and has always taken his cues from quotidian xenophobia and common sense nationalism, as well as from the esoteric manuals that circulate among the far right.

Copeland’s warped view of London’s everyday multiculturalism also shared something with the political establishment he hoped to provoke. His understanding of the city was like the mainstream reflected in a concave mirror, distorted but recognisable.

After all, it’s not only neo-Nazis who imagine Brixton’s black community as a threat; long subject to an excessive police presence, in 1999 Brixton was also one of the most highly surveilled neighbourhoods in the country by the expanding network of CCTV systems on which the Home Office spent £200 million between 1994 and 1999. It was on one of these cameras that the first glimpse of Copeland was captured: a grainy still was published in the newspapers and identified by Paul Mifsud, who recognised his former co-worker in the image and alerted the police to his suspicion. It is a bleak irony that the CCTV that was installed to police the black communities he targeted was the key to catching Copeland himself.

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People in Soho Square looking at tributes to those killed in the bombing of the Admiral Duncan. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

In the week after the Brick Lane attack, the Metropolitan Police suspected that the gay community could be the bomber’s next target. We might pause on why they suspected that the gay community would be targeted. Evidently, the logic of “minority” identity was not defined exclusively in terms of race: gays and lesbians also emerge after dividing the world into “types”. By the late 20th century, the impulse to categorise people morphs into the language of community, in which gays can be seen as a coherent collective who had staked a claim to urban space. A comment by Jack Straw made in the immediate aftermath of the attacks reinforced the way Copeland saw society:

"We are dealing with people who have warped minds, right-wing extremists who are obviously racist and homophobic. That we know. I know too that the British people will not be intimidated by this outrage, nor will the harmony between different minorities be disturbed by it.”

The suggestion that the attacks could provoke discord between minorities is a telling one: there is no self-evident reason that this would happen, yet it is precisely what Copeland had hoped to achieve. One might even imagine that attacks such as these could engender solidarity between different groups. Yet competition, division and threat appear to inhere in the very logic that produces groups as "minorities".

In the responses to the bombings, there were strong echoes of Copeland’s fantasy of violence as a powerful method for shoring up the division of people into distinct social groups.

After the Soho attack, the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, gave a speech condemning Copeland’s acts to an international convention of Sikhs in Birmingham. Copeland stated that his next target would have been Southall, which has a large Sikh population. Blair’s choice of audience appears significant. It is perhaps a claim to solidarity, but one that shares Copeland’s sense of a city divided into discrete communities of different races, each with a distinct claim (albeit illegitimate, in Copeland’s vision) to a pocket of urban space. Blair’s speech attempts to invert the bomber’s logic, arguing:

"The true outcasts today, the true minorities, those truly excluded, are not the different races and religions of Britain, but the racists, the bombers, the violent criminals who hate that vision of Britain and try to destroy it."

Blair holds onto the view that minorities are inherently threatening, but recasts it. Copeland becomes a threat to multicultural Britain – “a true minority” – demonstrating the persistence of what Arjun Appadurai has dubbed “the fear of small numbers” in his attempt to explain the proliferation of extreme violence aimed at civilian populations in a globalising world. The redrawing of the lines of inclusion and exclusion is an attempt to claim multicultural Britain as authentic and Copeland’s violence as the work of an outsider to the national community.

This tactic, however tempting in the short term, swerves the uncomfortable fact that Copeland was made in Britain. Like Thomas Mair – who allegedly shouted “this is for Britain” as he stabbed Jo Cox – it was in Britain’s name that he planted the bombs.

Copeland’s campaign of violence has not made him a household name. Though he has a following among neo-Nazis and is sometimes the object of interest in studies of radicalisation, his racism is often mentioned as an afterthought when discussing the Admiral Duncan.

Reconsidering David Copeland – the facts that have been lost, as well as those that more regularly resurface – sheds light on some other developments which have shaped the past two decades.

In the years following the September 11th attacks in 2001, “Islamism” displaced both the far-right and the IRA as the terrorist threat in the collective imagination. As the “War on Terror” has evolved and become entrenched, politically motivated violence and destruction has become associated with Muslims, despite the fact that “lone wolf” attacks by the far-right are becoming more common in western Europe.

Meanwhile, gay rights have acquired a new status as a metric of civilisation, while homophobia is increasingly seen as backwards and reactionary.

In this context, the way Copeland can be deployed is particularly revealing. In 2005, in the wake of the 7/7 attacks in London, OutRage! (a gay activist organisation led by Peter Tatchell) issued a press release stating that there was a “terrorist danger” to gay venues, and that members of OutRage! had received threats. OutRage’s campaigns coordinator is quoted as saying:

“In April 1999, OutRage! issued a similar warning after the Brixton and Brick Lane bombs, advising that gay venues could be targeted and urging increased security. The OutRage! warning was mostly ignored. Five days later, neo-Nazi David Copeland exploded a bomb in the Admiral Duncan gay bar in Soho, killing three people. It would be very foolish to ignore the possibility of Islamists bombing a gay bar or club.”

When the London Nailbomber is remembered in 2005, Muslims are seemingly forgotten as victims of racist violence, and repositioned as potential sources of homophobia. This logic is enthusiastically taken up by the state: the same Conservative party that passed Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 – the legislation that prevented schools from “promoting” homosexuality – now screens Muslim children for homophobic views, as part of the highly controversial Prevent programme, which has seen children as young as four being referred on suspicion of having been “radicalised”.

The conflict that Copeland hoped to provoke in London’s minorities was based on a Manichean worldview, in which communities are characterised by intractable divisions, with only a fragile membrane separating difference from violence. Copeland hoped to tear this membrane and let loose the chaos that lay in wait. This cartography of threat is a view of the city as imagined from above, from the perspective of the state who Copeland hoped to usurp.

At ground level, people live in casual defiance of the categories imposed upon them. At the Admiral Duncan, Copeland’s final bomb killed Andrea Dykes, aged 27, who was four months pregnant, and her friends Nick Moore, aged 31, and John Light, aged 32. Andrea’s husband Julian was seriously injured, spending three weeks unconscious in hospital before learning of his wife’s death and the loss of his unborn child. Police reported that when Copeland learned that he had murdered a pregnant, heterosexual woman, he felt sick. Though these violent attacks aim to cause chaos, fascistic ideology is rooted in a desire for a tidy, ordered world of clear divisions, in which straight people never drink in gay bars and whites scrupulously maintain segregation.

In 2004, David Morley, a gay bartender, was beaten to death by a group of young people near Waterloo station. The youths had attacked several others that night; as some, but not all, were gay, homophobia was neither confirmed nor ruled out as a motivating factor. Morley had been working at the Admiral Duncan on the 30th of April, 1999 and had survived the bomb attack with burns to his hands. A Soho stalwart, affectionately known as Sinders in the gay community, he had returned to the Admiral Duncan as its manager when the pub reopened a few weeks after the attack, shaken but determined to get the bar back up and running, and to move on from the traumatic experience.

A week after reopening, Morley heard a knock on the door. When he went to open it, he found a group of Asian teenagers from Tower Hamlets, delivering a card of support from one of their parents, whose shop had been damaged in the attack on Brick Lane. When Morley saw them he broke down in tears.

I had heard the anecdote about this meeting between some Asian teenagers and a beloved Soho barman third-hand, and struggled to track down any evidence of it, fearing this moment might have been lost in Morley’s tragic death five years later. I eventually found the story in an article from the Independent, and felt a rush of warm relief at being able to verify this meeting, which neither Copeland nor the state could imagine as possible. Against the violence of the far-right and the fantasy – so widely accepted – of urban space as divided and communities as discrete, connections that undo the social classifications of race and sexuality can still be pulled from the wreckage.

@sitainshort