Friday 22 February 2019

What turned two young men into blood-soaked butchers?

Jamie Doward

CLUTCHING a placard protesting "Muslims only guilty of worshipping", Michael Adebolajo was a striking figure. Dressed in immaculate white robes, the young man stood out from his crowd of fellow protesters due to his imposing physical presence.

It was 2007 and Adebolajo was protesting outside Paddington Green police station in London at the arrest of a fellow Muslim radical. Stern-faced but restrained, Adebolajo, 28, appeared a study of peaceful radical protest. He cut a similar figure only days ago when he and his friend, Michael Adebowale, 22, were preaching in Woolwich.

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 shops to facing charges of murder and the attempted beheading of a soldier in just a few days?

The barbaric act that they are accused of is all the more shocking due to its seemingly random nature.

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 appear to be "lone wolves", outsiders who seemed to revel in their near 20 minutes of infamy, posing for the cameras while they waited patiently for the arrival of armed police, certain of how their story was to end.

At one stage Adebolajo, whose family moved from Nigeria to London in the 1980s, tells the people watching: "I apologise that women had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same."

Seconds 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 they are from.

But then, trying to fit in seems to have been a problem for both men from an early age. Probation sources have said that both grew up on the periphery of the violent south-east London gang scene.

The gangs are drawn predominantly, but not exclusively, from African and Caribbean communities.

"A major concern in recent years has been the cross-over between criminal groups and Islamist organisations," said Harry Fletcher, a former assistant general-secretary of the probation union, Napo.

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 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.

In 2008, Adebowale was stabbed in an attack that left another man dead in a drugs related robbery. Sources said he had spent time in a young offenders' institution.

In the hunt for answers attention is likely to focus on the pair's time studying at Greenwich University, which, unlike several London institutions, had not been previously associated with radicalism.

However, the university Islamic society's inaugural annual dinner in January 2009, was addressed by Uthman Lateef, a cleric who has recently been banned from speaking at some universities.

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.

'If they're new Muslims, they are easy prey. They won't question what they're told.'

That both men were brought up as Christians made them susceptible to radicalisation, according to Dr Irfan al Alawi, international director for the Centre of Islamic Pluralism. "If they are new Muslims, they are easy prey," Dr Alawi 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 think tank, estimates that 15 per cent of Islamist terrorist offences in the UK have been committed by converts.

Choudhury insisted that he has not seen Adebolajo for a couple of years. But Haras Rafiq, director of Centri, a counter-extremism consultancy, believes al-Muhajiroun's influence would have lingered.

"Al-Muhajiroun glorified 9/11 and the Madrid bombings," Rafiq said. "If Woolwich was these guys going up to 100mph, al-Muhajiroun got them to 80."

Both Alawi and Rafiq are critical of the British government for failing to tackle the Salafi strain of Islam that is promoted in the more radical mosques.

Too often, both men feel, the views of extremists have been tolerated, allowing Salafists to preach a narrative that invokes the crusades and presents Muslims as being persecuted by the West.

The Salafi theology, which can be used to promote both violent and non-violent Jihad (struggle), 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 law and enjoys close links with Al-Qaeda.

However, he never made it beyond Kenya. Arrested by the country's security forces, Adebolajo was apparently assaulted and threatened with sexual abuse during a period of interrogation.

When he returned, a friend said Adebolajo's personality had changed dramatically. There are suggestions he was traumatised by the experience.

Questions will be asked about whether MI5 knew he was being interrogated in Kenya as they questioned him about several individuals they were interested in when he returned to the UK.

Later, MI5 asked Adebolajo if he was interested in working for them, a not uncommon offer from the security services desperate to acquire intelligence assets.

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 new breeding ground for jihad.

Irish Independent

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