LONDON (AFP) – When Michael Adebolajo was filmed clutching the bloodied knives he apparently used to butcher a soldier, Britons were chilled by the strong London accent in which he spoke of his Islamist motives. How could one of their own have become so radicalised?
A picture is slowly emerging of the 28-year-old, one of two men of Nigerian descent who were shot by police shortly after soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death on a London street on Wednesday.
Born in the British capital to devoutly Christian parents from Nigeria, Adebolajo is believed to have converted to Islam in his late teens before becoming increasingly radical.
Much less is known about the other suspect, 22-year-old Michael Adebowale, who like Adebolajo remains in hospital under armed guard. But he too is believed to be the London-born son of a Nigerian family.
Childhood friends were among those most appalled by amateur footage of a bloody-handed Adebolajo in the minutes after the murder, in which he tells a passer-by that he killed Rigby because British soldiers killed Muslims every day.
They remember him as a classroom joker with the same interests as any other British teenager — football, chasing girls, playing video games, and listening to rap music.
“He wasn’t naughty but liked a joke,” one schoolfriend told The Times. “He got in trouble every now and again but only with the teachers — like we all did.”
Acquaintances recalled that Adebolajo’s mother had strong Christian beliefs, but he himself was not particularly interested in religion.
“She raised him as a Christian with good manners and respect,” a family friend told The Sun.
It appears that Adebolajo converted to Islam around 2003, but his friends and family watched with concern as he became increasingly radical.
He is believed to have attempted to travel to Somalia to join the Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgents, but had to turn back.
Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, one of the leaders of the radical Al-Muhajiroun group, said he was well-acquainted with Adebolajo, who regularly attended sermons by banned radical cleric Omar Bakri in London.
“He used to attend some of our activities over the years,” Choudary told AFP. “Very peaceful chap actually, not violent at all, very pleasant.”
Choudary said Adebolajo had changed his name to Mujahid, meaning “holy fighter”, and was a familiar face at meetings of Al-Muhajiroun, which is now banned in Britain under anti-terror laws.
“We lost any kind of contact with him about three years ago,” Choudary added.
A photograph has emerged of Adebolajo scuffling with police at an Islamist protest in 2006 outside London’s Old Bailey court, where an extremist was on trial for urging the killing of British soldiers.
The protesters had called for people to “behead those who insult Islam”.
The Times said Adebolajo had been frequently spotted in recent weeks preaching on the main shopping street of Woolwich, the south London district where Rigby was murdered not far from his army barracks.
A fellow Muslim, identified only as Abdullah, told The Times he had been concerned at Adebolajo’s extreme stance at a recent prayer meeting.
“He was saying some things that I believed were way out,” he said.
In the now infamous video taken in the aftermath of the attack, Adebolajo makes a series of political statements including a demand for Prime Minister David Cameron to “bring our troops back”.
“The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers and this British soldier is one,” he says, holding a blood-covered kitchen knife and a meat cleaver.
“It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
He later adds: “I apologise that women have had to witness this today, but in our land our women have to see the same. You people will never be safe. Remove your government, they don’t care about you.”
Reports suggest that Adebolajo fell in with a bad crowd in his late teens, despite his parents’ efforts to steer him back on track, with some acquaintances saying he had dabbled in drug-dealing.
The family moved to Lincolnshire in eastern England in 2002. A house in the county believed to be owned by Adebolajo’s father, who works as a mental health nurse, was among several addresses raided by counter-terror police on Wednesday.
Adebolajo appears to have returned to London a year later — coinciding with his conversion to Islam — to start a degree at Greenwich University, just a few miles from the murder scene.