You don’t expect it to happen when he’s in the UK. You think they’re safe,” Rebecca Rigby, wife of British soldier Lee Rigby, slain in Woolwich, southeast London, on May 24.
Britain having to re-live the harrowing moments of July 7, 2005, when four suicide bombers ripped the heart out of London, killing 52 people and wounding more than 700. The events of May 22, 2013, when two men hacked and killed an off-duty soldier with a knife and meat cleavers, are leading Britons to ask the same disturbing question posed eight years ago: just who are these killers among us?
It’s a nightmare scenario that the West has learnt to live with ever since 9/11. But unlike the 19 hijackers who brought down the Twin Towers in New York City in 2001, many of today’s radicals, extremists and terrorists are not necessarily working on a grand scale plot over months and years. There may not even be a mastermind to take out.
Armed with crude weapons, taking instructions from only a booklet at the end of a computer screen, they are lonely individuals seeking out isolated targets. In some ways, the nightmare that began with 9/11 may have just got scarier.
“They are self-radicalised within their bedrooms, the house becomes the training camp and the Internet is the tool for training,” said Sajjan Gohel, international security direct at the Asia Pacific Foundation thinktank. “Things have become easier for the lone wolf, and their goals are simple — it’s targeted assassination. How chilling is it.”
The two men who carried out the savage daylight killing in Woolwich did not travel to Pakistan for training, unlike at least two of the 7/7 bombers. Nigerian by ethnicity, Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, were not even Muslim by birth. Both British-born men came from devout Catholic families. Both converted to Islam around a decade ago.
Ajebolajo is the man who was filmed by a passerby giving a statement after the killing, his hands soaked in blood as he casually held a large kitchen knife and a meat cleaver.
According to sketchy accounts pieced together from interviews with neighbours and others who had known the men, it appears that Adebolajo’s working class parents, fearing that he had become radicalised, moved him from London to a leafy village home in Lincolnshire in 2002.
“He was just a typical teenage,” said a neighbour, Kemi Ibrahim-Adeoti “He would rebel against his parents once or twice.” But he was aggressive, and once threw a brick at his parents’ car window.
For some reason, both became attracted to extremist forms of Islam. Adebowale’s mother sought help from a local Imam, fearing her son was going off the rails. Following Rigby’s killing, it was a controversial extremist Muslim leader — the Pakistani-origin Anjem Choudary — who first revealed Adebolajo’s radical links with his now-banned group.
“He was around and about until two years ago, when he disappeared, and I don’t know who he associated with after that,” Choudary said. “He was like many of the young men who come to us – very quiet, kind, a pleasant character. What happened (in Woolwich) was a shock for all of us.”
Once a member of the ‘Woolwich boys’ gang, Adebolawe was stabbed at 16 and saw his friend being “literally sliced to pieces” in 2008, according to the judge who heard the case.
But an old schoolfriend, Luqman Ciise, tweeted: “I knew him personally, he was normal, smiling all the time. His name was Toby. Still can’t believe this. How did he get radicalised?”
That’s the question every security and intelligence expert in Britain is asking. “When does a radical person flip over to being a radical extremist? To find the red flags is enormously hard…” admitted Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism in the external spy agency MI6.
Britain’s secret services are under the scanner after revelations that both men had been on their radar for several years and that Adebolajo’s passport was impounded after an abortive bid to travel to Somalia. Yet no one saw the red flags.
Two startling facts emerged on Friday night that shed new light on the Woolwich killing. A close childhood friend of Adebolajo told BBC television that Adebolajo had been picked up by the army in Kenya – which is close to Somalia – and tortured, possibly sexually abused. He also said MI5 agents had tried to recruit Adebolajo. “His wording was, ‘They are bugging me – they won’t leave me alone’.”
Moments after the interview, the man was arrested in the BBC studios.
Lord Khalid Hameed, an Indian-origin businessman and prominent multi-faith activist in Britain, said the two Nigerian men were not out of the ordinary because “every society has its psychotics. We must not get swept away by the rhetoric. There have always been radicals and extremists in democracies. To an extent, it is healthy for these things to flush out like puss in a wound, rather than stay hidden.”