Michael Adebolajo, who was unsurprisingly found guilty of Lee Rigby's murder today, at a protest outside Harrow mosque (photo by Dan Giannopolous)
On the 22nd of May, Lee Rigby was murdered in South London. Knocked down as he crossed the road, he was then repeatedly stabbed before having his neck sliced in an attempted decapitation with a meat cleaver bought from Argos. He died lying in the street across the road from the barracks where he served as a Drummer with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. His killers – 29-year-old Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, 22 – stood calmly at the scene. The former, with bloodstained hands, gave a speech to onlookers, warning that if British troops were not withdrawn from "Muslim lands", “You people will never be safe.” An eyewitness explained how Adebolajo had told her, “The women and children are safe. You need to keep back when the police and the soldiers get here.” They believed they would become martyrs, so when police arrived, they charged them – one armed with knives, the other with a rusty, unloaded handgun. The police shot them down and they were taken to hospital.
Given that they committed a brutal and bloody murder in broad daylight, before conducting an impromptu press conference to an audience armed with camera phones, the guilty sentences handed out today come as no surprise. They're probably going to spend a life behind bars – the terms of their sentences have not been decided at this point.
The scene of the murder (photo by Simon Childs)
I arrived at the scene a while after the police shot the suspects, before it was confirmed that this was a “terror attack” and not just another London gang beef played out in front of commuters. The first witness I spoke to had been stuck in traffic, but didn't pull over as she didn’t realise what had taken place. Others still standing near the cordons were confused about what they'd seen – some thought the men had been killed (rather than wounded) by the police, or that it was a gang-related attack. Few recalled hearing cries of “Allahu Akbar”.
At the local estate pub, I was told that this was the sixth murder they'd seen in the area recently. But, they claimed, this was the first time the press had bothered to show up. People who'd witnessed events were checking social media sites to fill in the gaps in their memory; reporters with thousand-pound contracts snapped up pictures and videos from teenagers. Later, images of the brutal murder of a young soldier would be labelled as an "exclusive" by a number of outlets – the crass side of journalism well in evidence. As the chequebooks came out, those I spoke to when I first arrived, who had seen little, were giving full accounts of events to any reporter who asked.
For the local kids whose area was suddenly filling up with the world’s press, their initial concern was, “Did you show my face during the riots?” I saw a young, well-spoken reporter approach a group and ask them “Did you know the killers?” He handed them a business card from a right-wing broadsheet and awkwardly shuffled off, empty-handed.
Tommy Robinson and the EDL turn up in Woolwich (photo courtesy of Mirror Image Photos)
Next to arrive were the EDL. The scene was grim as the news emerged that it was a young soldier who'd been killed and the suspects were radical Muslims. As night fell, I saw them come streaming out of a side lane and begin throwing bottles and glasses at the already over-stretched police. Their then leader Tommy Robinson give a display of pseudo-paramilitary aggression outside a pub and spat “Rivers of Blood” style warnings against Muslims. The EDL were behind enemy lines. A local gang known as the Woolwich Boyz are one of the largest and fiercest in London and could have smashed the EDL if they'd attempted to drive them out – but after what happened outside the barracks, there was no will, locals explained. So the racists were allowed free reign.
Both attackers pleaded not guilty when the trial began last month. The younger of the two, Adebowale, offered to give no evidence in his defence; Adebolajo insisted upon being called Mujaahid Abu Hamza and his legal team outlined a claim that he was a soldier involved in a war against the British state. They even drew legal comparisons with the IRA. He was told this was no defence to the charge he faced.
It wasn’t a sophisticated terror attack – the court heard how Adebolajo had simply waited by the barracks in a Vauxhall Tigra for a soldier to pass, with Adebowale in the passenger seat. The driver said he believed Rigby to be “the most fair target because he joins the Army with kind of an understanding that your life is at risk”. Unfortunately for Lee Rigby, he happened to be the first soldier they spotted.
One of the killers, Michael Adebowale, at an al-Muhajiroun demo outside the US Embassy in 2012 (photo courtesy of HOPE not hate)
In his police interview, Adebowale declared, “We did not wish to give him much pain... the most humane way to kill any creature is to cut the jugular... he may be my enemy but he is a man... so I struck at the neck and attempted to remove his head.” For Adebolajo, Lee Rigby was the “non-Muslim version of myself”. Speaking from the dock, he declared; “I'm a soldier. I'm a soldier of Allah and I understand that some people might not recognise this because we do not wear fatigues and we do not go to the Brecon Beacons and train and this sort of thing. But we are still soldiers in the sight of Allah.”
While he might not wear fatigues or train in the Beacons, in 2010 Adebolajo was arrested in Kenya and deported from the country – he was believed to have been en route to a training camp run by the jihadist group al Shabaab, travelling under a false name. It is unknown if he received training there but he had already been openly associating with radical Muslim groups in London for years. People who knew him claim that the attention he received from security services pushed him over the edge.
Over a year before the Woolwich attack, Adebolajo visited Asim Qureshi at Cage Prisoners, a Muslim human rights group, complaining that his family were being harassed by MI5. Mr Qureshi told me how Adebolajo came to their office along with his non-Muslim sister, Blessing, to explain how he felt the security services were targeting his brother Jeremiah, who was working at the time as a teacher in Saudi Arabia.
"[Jeremiah] was being threatened by UK security services," explained Qureshi. "They said he had to work with them or they wouldn't be able to protect him from the Saudi authorities – a very badly veiled threat. He was truly baffled as to why they were harassing him and his family in this way. There was a look of utter confusion about why at that time. He felt they were trying to use his vulnerability against him.”
At the time, Adebolajo did not go into detail about what had taken place during his trip to Kenya. His friends have claimed that he was captured and tortured by troops there, though for obvious reasons their testimonies might not be totally reliable. "We didn't go into detail about Kenya," said Qureshi. "He never mentioned to me anything to do with training. As far as I understood, there wasn't anything particularly like that alleged at the time.” It's clear, however, that security services have been aware of his activities since his conversion in 2003, when he was initially linked to Anjem Choudary’s British-based al-Muhajiroun jihadist group – in 2006, he was arrested along with other radicals outside the court case of Islamic activist Mizanur Rahman.
Anjem Choudary, leader of al-Muhajiroun (photo by Henry Langston)
Adebolajo led Cage Prisoners to believe that he was a rational person, acting inside the law to protect his family. Were they naïvely taken in by the young convert? “He was completely lucid," recalls Qureshi. "One of the striking features was that he was very much engaging with us – finding out how you use the system to change these things and stop the programme of harassment. I don’t know exactly what happened between then and the Woolwich incident but all I can say is that when you make space so small and an individual becomes so disenfranchised from society – not just because of foreign policy but because of domestic policy as well – there's bound to be levels of frustration and resentment.”
Cage Prisoners lost contact with Adebolajo shortly after their meeting. The next time they heard of him he was on TV covered in blood and wielding a cleaver. But, they protest, “He didn’t seem like the type of person that would do something like this. He was somebody who wanted to live a normal life, find redress and get away from the programme of harassment he was facing – so how did he go from there to Woolwich?”
The targeting of a young soldier contrasts wildly with the arbitrary nature of an attack on public transport, like 7/7. Was this an attempt to “bring the war home” by striking at the symbol of everything that is British – a young soldier – right in the capital? Did Adebolajo hope to contrast the reaction to 446 soldiers dead in Afghanistan, with the loss of a single life at home? Were the pair trying to highlight the disparity between the public fear of jihadists and other anti-British groups? The murder certainly had far more impact than the two soldiers murdered in a Real IRA attack in Belfast in 2009, for example.
Following today’s guilty verdict, the nation will be searching for ways to rationalise what happened and explain how the two Michaels were corrupted by sinister preachers. Regardless of the claims of harassment, any attempt to paint Adebolajo as some kind of victim fall flat, although the security services may still have questions to answer in this case. The severity of his actions jars against his relatively populist rhetoric. In the comments he made just after the attack, Adebolajo wasn't advocating an immediate and bloody Sharia takeover of the UK. He just said he wanted British troops out of Muslim countries – which is a cause similar to the one a million people marched through the streets of London for back in 2003.
However, for now it seems the pair have failed in their mission. All that bringing fatal violence to the streets of London did was provoke a summer of far-right violence and vitriol against British Muslims. They are two rotten individuals and the brutal murder they committed will have no legacy beyond the spread of pain and violence.
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