I was as shocked and horrified as anyone else this week by the appalling attack by two young men on the soldier in Woolwich, London. The image of the victim lying in the street dying as one of the suspects talked into a lens, with blood on his hands and still holding meat cleavers, was genuinely disturbing at the most primal of levels to anyone watching,
For me however, it’s been particularly unsettling.
Let me explain why.
In the 48hrs since the attacks I have been distracted by the face, voice and build of that man. He seemed familiar and I have spent hours trying to work out why.
I knew he reminded me of someone I once met and have never forgotten, but when I started digging through my notes, I more or less dismissed the imagined link. But I kept searching anyway. New information however, stopped me in my tracks.
The suspect’s name, according to reports, is Michael Adebolajo, a 29 year-old British man of Nigerian origin. Initially that didn’t help me. Moreover, when I discovered he’d changed his name to Mujahid, that confused me even more since I have no recollection or memory reference of having met anyone called that either.
However, the more I looked at the terrible video of him speaking into the camera, waving his blood splattered hands around, the more certain I became I’d met him during one of my investigations in 2004.
After more research, I discovered that this man was a follower of radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed. And it was then I realised that my connection might be actually correct.
You see in March 2004, I met the radical cleric – calling himself ‘Sheik’ Omar – in London (in a Burger King rather bizarrely) for an investigation I was doing for Esquire magazine into two UK suicide bombers who’d committed an atrocity in Israel. Some people regarded the radical Sheik who led the extremist group al-Muhajiroun as a buffoon but I felt different. A source told me the two suicide bombers had been influenced heavily by the cleric, so I wanted to meet him and ask him about his knowledge of them. I came away utterly convinced the cleric knew far more about the suicide bombing operation than he was letting on. He scared me and I tried to convey that in the final paragraph of the article. You can read the investigation here.
Now throughout that memorable meeting Bakri Mohammed was accompanied to the meeting by a very intense, well-built and glowering young black man. Before I’d started taping the encounter, I discovered the pair of them – quite thoughtfully – had already bought me some fast food from the Burger King we were sitting in: I gently declined their kind offer and so the cleric shrugged, then happily tucked into a second Chicken Royale and also helped himself to another large strawberry milkshake. I heard the large young man speak and realised he was a local Londoner and asked him what his name was – he looked at the cleric clearly seeking permission – and then told me in a quiet voice that I could refer to him as ‘Abdul’. He sat silent throughout the entire meeting literally staring at me non-stop, something I found unsettling and a little annoying. I tried to engage him in conversation and he refused to say much. Only after the tape-recorder was switched off did he briefly discuss religion, referring to Jesus using the Hebrew name of Yeshua, and bemoaning the country’s lack of belief in proper religions.
That name he referred to himself with – ‘Abdul’ – didn’t help me much as I tried to join the dots.
Until today when I read an article in The Independent newspaper.
It connects the cleric to the Woolwich attacker and there, halfway down, it also states he did indeed have a third name – one he used in between ‘ Michael Adebolajo’ and the more recent ‘Mujahid’. That name – according to Bakri Mohammed himself – was… ‘Abdullah’. The article also lays out his closeness to the cleric, how he became radicalised post-2003 and his movements in that whole timeframe. Everything fits with my recollections.
To triple-check my memory however, I pulled out from my archives this morning the actual 11-page transcript of my interview on March 16th, 2004 with the cleric and this man. As I said, he sat silently throughout the actual recording so I didn’t expect to find much, but after a couple of searches I found, on Page 3 of the 4,409 word transcript, a single reference to me asking the staring black ‘minder’ of the the Sheik a simple question – and I used the name he’d given me when we first met minutes before – ‘Abdul’.
I would therefore state, with perhaps an 85-90% certainty, that the 29year-old man with the meat cleaver and bloodied hands who jointly carried out the Woolwich murder of 25 year-old soldier Lee Rigby, and the 20 year-old minder to the radical preacher I met in North London in March 2004, were the same person.
My final recollection of the encounter – an anecdote I have mentioned frequently in lectures to students because I never forgot it – was when we wrapped up the interview, the pair muttered to each other and then invited me back to a local flat. They said they had some interesting ‘martyr’ videos I might find interesting and could assist me with my investigation.
I politely declined.