| 18°C Dublin

Exiled Islamist cleric who taught UK knifeman praises "courage"

A Syrian-born Islamist cleric who taught one of the attackers accused of hacking to death an off-duty British soldier on a London street praised the attack for its "courage" and said Muslims would see it as a strike on a military target.

In an interview in Tripoli, northern Lebanon, where he has lived since being banished from Britain in 2005, Omar Bakri, founder of banned British Islamist group Al Muhajiroun, told Reuters he knew suspect Michael Abebolajo from a decade ago.

"When I saw the footage I recognised the face immediately," Bakri told Reuters. "I used to know him. A quiet man, very shy, asking lots of questions about Islam."

"What surprised me (is) the quiet man, the man who is very shy, decided to carry out an attack against a British soldier in the middle of the day in the middle of a street in the UK. In east London. It's incredible.

"When I saw that, honestly I was very surprised - standing firm, courageous, brave. Not running away. Rather, he said why he carried (it out) and he wanted the whole world to hear it."

The attack has been vociferously condemned by Muslim organisations across Britain.

Adebolajo, 28, a British-born convert from a Christian Nigerian immigrant family, went by the nickname Mujahid - warrior - after taking up Islam as a teenager in a suburb on the northeast outskirts of London.

He was filmed with his hands still covered with the blood of Afghan war veteran Lee Rigby, 25, after the attack. Clutching a butcher's knife and meat cleaver, he said the killing was revenge for British participation in wars in foreign countries.

He and a second knife-wielding attacker, Nigerian-born naturalised British citizen Michael Adebowale, 22, are in hospital after being shot by police during their arrest. They have yet to be charged. Police have also arrested another man and a woman under suspicion of conspiracy to murder.

Bakri said his organisation Al Muhajiroun had nothing to do with the attack because they had not seen Adebolajo since 2005. However, Anjem Choudary, who took over the leadership of Al Muhajiroun when Bakri was exiled from Britain, has told Reuters Adebolajo attended the group's events until about two years ago.

"I think Michael, or Mujahid, is going to stand for what God has destined for him," Bakri said, speaking in English. "God destined for him to carry out the attack and God destined for the British soldier to die for the cause he believed in.

"Maybe Michael, in the eyes of many people in Britain, Muslim and non-Muslim, they don't condone what he did. They condemn it. But in the eyes of Muslims around the world they don't see him the same way. The Muslims in this country, they are so happy, proud of him. They see him as a freedom fighter attacking a military base."

Bakri said he had been living in Lebanon since 2005, under an agreement by which Lebanon prevents him from leaving the country for 30 years. But he said he was in daily contact with students in Britain.

Reuters