How London mosque attacker became a terrorist in three weeks
In a country that prides itself on tolerance, and in a city that celebrates its diversity, Makram Ali’s final journey to honour his god ended with him being murdered for his religion.
He lived in Finsbury Park, north London, about 400 yards from the mosque he had attended for the past 25 years, located in Muslim Welfare House.
On a warm June evening last year, Ali walked, through pain and with the aid of a stick, to join late-night prayers. It was Ramadan, an especially holy time for Muslims.
Ali’s faith guided a life that saw him raise four daughters and two sons, and feel pride in seeing two of the eldest children reach university. Those who knew him knew a man who demonstrated the values of a model British citizen, despite hardships with health and money that would lead others to make excuses and embrace the worst values. Ali, 51, was about to come across one such person.
In the weeks before that day, Darren Osborne had found a warped belief system, styling himself as an extremist rightwing “soldier”. On 18 June 2017, he left his home in Cardiff in a rented van and drove to London, looking for Muslims to kill.
He scoured the centre of London for an Islamic pro-Palestinian march, and then moved on to the south in search of a mosque. By 11.30pm, he found a target in the north of the city. Having reached the Finsbury Park area, Osborne asked for directions to the mosque, and left his van to walk there, police believe, to carry out reconnaissance ahead of his attack.
Just after midnight, prayers ended. As worshippers headed home, Ali fell to the floor, unwell, on a cul-de-sac off Seven Sisters Road. He was breathing, speaking barely audibly, but still alive.
Other Muslims rushed to Ali’s aid, offering him water and help. For Osborne, the crowd, some of them wearing Islamic clothing, was the target he sought for his hatred.
He was driving a rented white Citroën, which veered left across Seven Sisters Road, across a bus lane, and then across the pavement.
Osborne was driving at 16mph (26km/h) as his van slammed into the crowd. It was the fourth terrorist attack in Britain in three months, but this time, the ideology behind it was not Islamist.
Ibrahim Benaounda described the impact as like “being on a rollercoaster, spinning round and round. I felt everything. I felt my bones breaking”.
Mohammed Geedi was also knocked to the ground. When he got up, he said he saw people “splattered all over the place”.
Adnan Mohamud had called 999 for help for the stricken Ali. He was still on the phone when the van hit.
Mohamud shouted: “Someone’s just come and run over a whole lot of people … People are dying, man.”
One witness described a limb being stuck under the van’s wheel. Waleed Salim said he and others tried to lift the van to get his cousin, Hamdi Alfaiq, out from underneath it. Alfaiq, who suffered extensive injuries and needed months of rehabilitation, was one of 12 people wounded.
The front van’s offside wheel ran over Ali on the upper right side of his chest, leaving a tyre track across his torso. Within an hour, he died, struck down 100 yards from where he lived.
Watching were some of his family, who had been alerted that Ali had fallen ill. Toufik Kacimi of Muslim Welfare House said: “His daughter saw the van hit her dad.”
Osborne fled the van. Despite his claims to the contrary at the trial, where he said he had been changing his trousers in the footwell while someone else drove, CCTV footage showed he was alone. He tried to escape, shouting “I want to kill more Muslims”. The Muslim people Osborne had tried to murder captured him, then saved him.
Mohammed Mahmoud, the mosque’s imam, shielded Osborne from the crowd. He told Woolwich crown court: “I shouted ‘No one touch him’ [and] told people to get back, and said: ‘We are handing him in unscathed to the police’.
“He should answer for his crime in a court, and not in a court in the street.”
In the van, Osborne had left a note, which he had written 24 hours before in a Cardiff pub, from which he was ejected after making racist and anti-Muslim remarks.
The note gave voice to what was inside him, and showed the attack was premeditated.
“Why are their terrorists on our streets today? We’ve had three recent terror attacks …” Osborne wrote.
It referenced the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal, which involved gruesome attacks by men from a mainly Pakistani, and therefore Muslim, background. It had led to claims that surfaced in mainstream media debate that there was something in the men’s heritage that made them target white girls.
The note railed against the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and the London mayor, Sadiq Khan. It mentioned the Islamist terrorist attacks on London and Manchester between March and June 2017. It echoed the talking points of extremist propaganda.
Osborne launched into further diatribes while in police custody. But in contrast to some other committed violent extremists, he started to ramble about losing control of the van, rather than claiming the attack as a deliberate act of which he was proud.
Commander Dean Haydon of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command said: “He is a devious, vile and hate-filled individual.”
Despite his violence, Osborne had not been a hardcore, long-term ideologue. Unlike Thomas Mair, who murdered the MP Jo Cox in 2016, he did not have a longstanding interest in extremist rightwing propaganda.
Some of his behaviour in court was jarringly mundane. In the dock as the prosecution started its case against him, Osborne turned to one of his guards. She was young, female and black. Osborne smiled and winked at her. She smiled back, then turned her head out of his view and let the disgust show on her face.
Sarah Andrews, his estranged partner, told detectives that Osborne was radicalised into a terrorist murderer in three weeks. Friends and family say there were no previous signs of racism or extremism.
The catalyst, police believe, came three weeks before the attack, when his attitudes began to metastasise after he watched Three Girls, a BBC TV drama about the Rochdale grooming scandal. He also read extremist rightwing propaganda online that left him “brainwashed” and a “ticking timebomb”.
Paul Gill, a terrorism expert and senior lecturer at at University College London, said radicalisation can be rapid, making it almost impossible to detect.
“It is rare, but violent extremism can occur quickly,” he said. “Brusthom Ziamani was a Jehovah’s Witness three months prior to his arrest for an Isis-inspired plot. It is usually expedited by primitive attack plans and a history of criminal activity and violence.”
Andrews, for her part, said she believed Osborne had become angry “about seeing young girls exploited” and developed his fixation with Muslims from that point.
“In recent weeks, he has become obsessed with Muslims, accusing them all of being rapists and being part of paedophile gangs,” she said.
Osborne gorged on social media postings by the former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, as well as members of the far-right group Britain First.
Like much of the modern British far right, it rails against multiculturalism and Muslims.
Osborne had not worked for a decade and had mental health issues, as well as problems with alcohol and drug abuse. He had convictions for violence, once serving a two-year jail term, and had an unpredictable temper.
Haydon confirmed that none of the material Osborne viewed from the extreme right crossed the line into being either criminal or breaking terrorism laws. “We are concerned about the role the internet played in this case,” he said.
Some see the pathway to Osborne’s extreme rightwing views being smoothed by some mainstream media opinion allegedly demonising all Muslims for the atrocities and violent extremist views of a small minority.
Harun Khan, the secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: “Osborne was motivated by anti-Muslim groups and Islamophobic tropes not only prevalent in far-right circles, but also made acceptable in our mainstream. The case tells us that we must all exercise caution when tempted to stigmatise any group of people.”
Security officials fear Osborne may be more than a one-off. They are concerned about extremist rightwing attacks being incited in the same way as Islamist violence: insidious propaganda cast out wide online, only needing some people to be infected by it to believe they should carry out violence. The consequent effects on society would be, to put it mildly, destabilising.
One senior counter-terrorism source told the Guardian that extremist rightwing activity was on the increase and a growing threat to national security. But there were also concerns that violence from Islamists and white terrorists would become symbiotic, citing the fear of each other to bolster support for their calls to terrorism.
The government has banned three far-right groups, and counter-terrorism sources say operations targeting the extreme right are increasing. Haydon said 30% of referrals to Prevent concern domestic extremism.
Gill said: “If you’ve got nothing else going on in your life and experience personal grievances, then rightwing propaganda helps turn your sadness from something personal into something much bigger.”
Osborne’s rage came as his life had stalled, and the hatred from extremist propaganda spoke to, then exacerbated, his existing demons. It was a tragedy for Ali’s family that Osborne found his voice only in such dangerous and destructive language.