Until recently, the idea of white British converts to Islam carrying out suicide bomb attacks in towns in England’s quiet, rural southwest would have been dismissed as fiction or fantasy. However, in the last two months two such attempts appear to have failed. In April, police raided a teenaged convert’s flat in Bristol, finding two suicide-bomb vests under construction. Just over a month later, in May, another young convert was arrested after he unsuccessfully attempted to detonate three bombs in a crowded restaurant in Exeter, Devon. In the same month, a court in London found another white English convert guilty of inciting terrorism. An examination of the three individuals illustrates several important trends.
Andrew Ibrahim, a 19-year-old convert to Islam, was arrested by police on April 16 in Bristol. The following day, police raided his flat in the city, finding quantities of Hexamethylene Triperoxide Diamine (HMTD), a homemade explosive, along with two homemade vests, ball bearings, air gun pellets, nails and screws, wired circuitry, batteries and electric bulb filaments. Local newspapers reported that Ibrahim, who was born to an English mother and an Egyptian Coptic Christian father, had once been a shy, drug-taking music fan with dyed hair and facial piercings (North Somerset News, April 21). Around 2005-2006, he converted to Islam and began growing a beard and wearing Salafi-style clothes. Friends speculated that he converted to Islam after his parents’ divorce, around the same time as he dropped out of school and began living in a homeless hostel (Western Daily Press, April 22). After he made extremist statements in Bristol mosques, concerned local Muslims reported him to the police. He was charged with terrorism offenses on April 29 (BBC, April 29).
At lunchtime on May 22, Nicky Reilly, a 22-year-old convert to Islam, attempted to detonate three bombs in a crowded restaurant in Exeter. Only one of the devices exploded, lightly wounding Reilly as he handled it in the restaurant’s toilet. He was arrested soon afterward. Reilly suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome—a form of autism—and has obsessive compulsive disorder, reportedly washing his hands up to 50 times a day (Sunday People, June 1). Despite this, Reilly was intelligent and capable, apparently constructing a new type of improvised bomb made of sodium hydroxide, aluminium foil strips, kerosene and nails (Daily Telegraph, June 5). When he was 18, Reilly split up with his girlfriend and became depressed, self-harming and attempted suicide (Daily Telegraph, May 23). Soon afterward, he discovered Islam and converted, changing his name to “Mohammed Rasheed.” He then befriended local Kurdish immigrants and even learned Kurdish. Crucially, he established an internet friendship with a Kurdish woman who reportedly encouraged him to carry out the bombing (Evening Standard, May 27).
Simon (or Suleiman) Keeler, 36, was found guilty in May of inciting terrorism and encouraging funding of terrorism, becoming the UK’s first white convert jailed for terrorism offenses. Keeler had been a prominent member of al-Muhajiroun, a radical pro-jihadist group, after converting to Islam in 1996 while unemployed and was regularly interviewed by the media. He was convicted for encouraging listeners at London’s prominent Regent’s Park mosque in November 2004 to fight British and U.S. troops in Iraq and to give money to support terrorism (Metropolitan Police press release, April 17). Despite this, however, there is little evidence that he had personally planned or sought to carry out terrorist attacks, whether in the UK or abroad.
There are clear similarities between all three converts. Both Reilly and Keeler were from working-class backgrounds, had limited formal education, and may have felt excluded from Britain’s knowledge-based economy. Ibrahim, a privileged drop-out reduced to living in a homeless shelter, may have felt similarly rejected by society. All three were also attracted to radical Islam at a time of personal crisis; embracing Islamism’s moral certainties was both a political statement and a solution to personal turmoil. Ultimately, all these converts completely rejected their Western background, adopted Arabic names and even mimicked the cultural—as opposed to Islamic—characteristics of their Muslim friends. For example, Reilly reportedly voiced his support for “honor killings” while Ibrahim had told local council housing officials that “he didn’t want to live in a white middle-class area” (Daily Telegraph, April 21). However, there are also important differences. Keeler had been involved in radical Islam for over 10 years before his conviction and had little intention of carrying out attacks himself. By contrast, Reilly had traveled from conversion to attempted terrorism in four years; Ibrahim in just two. Additionally, while the London-based Keeler was radicalized by prominent jihadist preachers, both Ibrahim and Reilly had very limited contact with known extremists. Their attempted attacks therefore suggest that future terrorists may have few—if any—connection to known extremists, as well as being physically indistinguishable from other Britons. Consequently, individuals like Reilly and Ibrahim are a threat not only to the UK but also to its allies, having the ability to travel freely to the United States, the European Union and many Commonwealth countries without attracting the suspicions of local security services.