Two British men of Nigerian descent accused of hacking a soldier to death on a London street on Wednesday in revenge for wars in Muslim countries were known to security services, a source close to the investigation said yesterday.
One man, filmed calmly justifying the killing as he stood by the body holding a knife and meat cleaver in bloodied hands, was named by acquaintances as 28-year-old Londoner Michael Adebolajo — a British-born convert to Islam. So frenzied was the attack, some witnesses thought they tried to behead the victim.
The attack, just a month after the Boston Marathon bombing and the first Islamist killing in Britain since local suicide bombers killed 52 people in London in 2005, revived fears of “lone wolves” who may have had no direct contact with al-Qaeda.
British media said police raided homes of relatives in the city and near the town of Lincoln. Adebolajo and the other man, who may have been born abroad and later naturalized as British, are both in custody in hospitals after being shot by police.
British Prime Minister David Cameron held an emergency meeting of his intelligence chiefs to assess the response to what he called a “terrorist” attack; it was the first deadly strike in mainland Britain since local Islamists killed dozens in London in 2005.
“We will never give in to terror or terrorism in any of its forms,” Cameron said outside his Downing Street office.
“This was not just an attack on Britain and on the British way of life, it was also a betrayal of Islam and of the Muslim communities who give so much to our country. There is nothing in Islam that justifies this truly dreadful act,” he said.
He said there would be a review of how intelligence had been handled — Adebolajo had been known to authorities for handing out radical Islamist pamphlets in Woolwich.
One source close to the inquiry said the local backgrounds of the suspects in a multicultural metropolis — nearly 40 percent of Londoners were born abroad — and the simplicity of the attack made prevention difficult.
“Apart from being horribly barbaric, this was relatively straightforward to carry out,” the source said. “This was quite low-tech and that is frankly pretty challenging.”
Anjem Choudary, one of Britain’s most recognized Islamist clerics, said Adebolajo, was known to fellow Muslims as Mujahid — a name meaning “warrior.”
“He used to attend a few demonstrations and activities that we used to have in the past,” Choudary said.
He added that he had not seen him for about two years.
“When I knew him he was very pleasant man,” Choudary said. “He was peaceful, unassuming and I don’t think there’s any reason to think he would do anything violent.”
A man called Paul Leech said on Twitter he had been at school in the east London suburb of Romford with the man seen claiming the attack: “Michael Adebolajo u make me sick,” he wrote. “How could someone who was a laugh and nice bloke at school turn out like that. I’m ashamed to have known u.”
The two men used a car to run down the young soldier, whose name has not been made public, near Woolwich Barracks in southeast London and attempted to behead him with a meat cleaver and knives, witnesses said, before telling shocked bystanders they acted in revenge for British wars in Muslim countries.
A dramatic clip filmed by an onlooker showed one of the men, identified as Adebolajo, his hands covered in blood and speaking in a local accent apologizing for taking his action in front of women, but justifying it on religious grounds.