By Michael Holden, Costas Pitas and Drazen Jorgic
LONDON/MOMBASA (Reuters) - Like many teenage boys growing up in soccer-obsessed Britain, Michael Adebolajo enjoyed kicking a ball around the school yard. Those who knew him then say he was just a regular lad: not the next David Beckham, nor bottom of the class.
"He was a nice guy who enjoyed playing football. He was normal," a schoolmate from secondary school, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. His life later took a turn.
On Thursday Adebolajo, a 29-year-old convert to Islam, and a second man, 22-year-old Michael Adebowale, were convicted of murdering off-duty soldier Lee Rigby in daylight on a street in Woolwich, southeast London, in May.
Their guilt had hardly been in doubt. Images of Adebolajo at the murder scene had shown him covered in blood, holding a knife and meat cleaver and invoking Allah as he tried to justify his actions.
In the witness box, Adebolajo - who preferred to be called Mujahid Abu Hamza - sat just meters from members of Rigby's family and described calmly how he was waging war in the name of Islam. "I am a soldier of Allah," he said, flanked by five security guards. "It's a war between Islam and those militaries that invaded Muslim lands. One of them happens to be British military and, unfortunately, the war continues to this day."
Adebolajo, a father of six, described in a police interview played to the court how he hacked at the soldier's neck after he and Adebowale ran the soldier over in their car. "He was struck in the neck with a sharp implement and it was sawed until his head, you know, almost detached," Adebolajo told the court.
He said he delivered the fatal strike to the victim, who had simply been the first soldier he and Adebowale had seen on the day of the attack.
How did a pleasant young boy born in multicultural London become an Islamic jihadist? Inquiries by Reuters, both in Britain and abroad, detail how Adebolajo came to be associated with known extremists. His supporters also claim he was abused by police during a trip to Kenya and upset after being pressured to work for MI5, Britain's domestic intelligence service.
British security sources declined to comment on the claims. Officials in Kenya deny Adebolajo was abused by the country's police.
"Nobody tortured him. Not even his Kenyan accomplices were tortured. We no longer torture suspects, we only interrogate," Aggery Adoli, regional police coordinator, told Reuters in Mombasa.
Born in London on December 10, 1984, Adebolajo grew up in Romford, near east London. His family were Christian and he and his siblings attended the local church with their parents every Sunday. In court Adebolajo recounted how his family gathered by candlelight to read passages from the Bible at New Year's Eve, and how his mother taught him how to pray.
When he was a teenager, he moved away from London after his parents divorced, returning in 2002 to became a student at the University of Greenwich where he studied building surveying. The following year he converted to Islam.
"When I came to Islam, I realized real success is not just what you can acquire, but really is if you make it to paradise, because then you can relax," he said during the trial.
He described how one of his friends was killed by an improvised explosive device while serving as a British soldier in Iraq; he did not give a date for the event. He said he still blamed then British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who took Britain into the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and was disgusted by the images of the bombing campaign shown on TV at the time.
But no single event led to Adebolajo's conversion, according to Mizanur Rahman, a radical who knew him and spent two years in prison for inciting people to kill British and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq during a protest in London in 2006.
"He always had his own concerns and questions about the Christian belief," Rahman told Reuters. "When he came across Islam it appealed to him. It offered solutions for his fears of life and problems in life."
Though friends spoke of Adebolajo's warm nature, there were signs he was becoming radicalized and turning against the West. In 2006 he was sentenced to 51 days in prison for assaulting a police constable at a demonstration. In 2007, he was pictured at a London protest where demonstrators held banners with slogans including "Christian crusades against Islam," and "Muslims persecuted for their beliefs."
Video footage shows Abedolajo alongside the Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary, several of whose followers were convicted of terrorism offences. Choudary denies he or his banned group Al Muhajiroun were behind Adebolajo's radicalization, and Adebolajo himself said he did not agree with all Choudary's views.
Adebolajo was to encounter other, more extreme, radicals in Africa.
PREPARED TO DIE
In October 2010, he turned up in Mombasa, Kenya, passing through communities where radical Muslim clerics openly supported al Shabaab, an Islamist group that has been waging an insurgency against Somalia's government since 2007. The group, which joined al Qaeda in 2012, is a militant offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union that previously controlled central and southern parts of Somalia.
To send funds and recruits to Somalia, al Shabaab developed a network in Kenya that involved a cleric called Sheikh Aboud Rogo, according to local police, who charged Rogo with terrorism offences, and the United States, which imposed financial sanctions on him. Adebolajo attended a mosque where Rogo preached, said police.
Rogo, who was shot dead by unknown assailants last year, was a rousing orator who called for Sharia Law - a conservative interpretation of the Koran. Sources at the country's Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) in Mombasa say Adebolajo was welcomed into Rogo's circle of al Shabaab sympathisers.
Potential recruits for al Shabaab would spend time being "psychologically prepared" by their Kenyan handlers, said Sheikh Ngao Juma, founder of Kenya Muslim National Advisory Council, who spent months researching a report on al Shabaab radicalization in Kenya. "They were prepared for what to expect in Somalia and trained not be afraid to be killed," Juma said.
The Mombasa branch of Kenya's anti-terrorism police, trained by Britain and the United States, knew all this. They also knew Adebolajo might be heading to Somalia, according to two officers from the ATPU who were in Mombasa at the time. "We received intelligence information from our seniors in Nairobi," said one officer, who added Adebolajo was kept under surveillance.
Adebolajo stayed around the Majengo area of Mombasa, a run-down neighborhood where children go barefoot. He prayed at several mosques, but most often at the Mussa mosque where Rogo preached, the officers said.
More than four weeks after landing in Kenya, Adebolajo and five Kenyan youths, some as young as 17, set off on an 8-hour bus journey from Mombasa to Lamu on the coast of Kenya about 60 miles from its border with Somalia. Abdul Swaleh, a student in Mombasa, was one of the five Kenyans making the journey. He told Reuters: "The five of us were on the bus when we sat next to Michael, who was an Englishman. We didn't know him but we started talking as we were all going to the Lamu Cultural Festival."
The six took a fishing boat to the village of Kizingitini, where one of the men had extended family, according to Swaleh. There he, Adebolajo and the others were cornered by armed Kenyan police on a jetty. Swaleh said he noticed several white men standing a short distance away.
"They didn't come to us, but the police officers were going to them. They were taking instructions from them and then coming back to ask us questions."
Adebolajo and his five Kenyan companions protested their innocence but were bundled away to Kizingitini's tiny police post and later taken back to Mombasa in shackles. "They were punching and kicking all of us," Swaleh alleged. "Afterwards they took us to the Kizingitini police station and started abusing us into saying we were going to Somalia."
Police deny those allegations.
Adebolajo appeared in court in Mombasa on suspicion of trying to join an Islamist group. He kept asking police and the court why Kenya was allowing itself to be used in the war between al Qaeda, America and Britain, according to Aboubakar Yusuf, one of two lawyers who acted on his behalf.
"Unlike his colleague-suspects, who looked worried and terrified, he was vocal, and demanded to know why he had been arrested, and what was wrong with crossing over to Somalia," Yusuf said.
One Mombasa anti-terrorism police officer recalled how Adebolajo won over several other detainees with his accent and mockery of the guards. "Sometimes he ridiculed us, calling us puppets who had allowed ourselves to be used by haters of Islam," the officer said.
The court granted Kenyan police more time to question the suspects; but to Yusuf's surprise, Adebolajo's name had been removed from the list of suspects.
"The investigating officer then told the court that the British High Commission had written to them recommending his release. He said the commission told them (Adebolajo) was clean," Yusuf said.
The British High Commission in Nairobi said it helped Adebolajo, but did not divulge to what extent. Adebolajo was set free and deported from Kenya. "We never saw him after that," said Swaleh who, along with the other suspects, was eventually freed without charge.
Friends claim that during his time in Kenya and afterwards, Adebolajo came under pressure from the British secret services to work for them. In April 2012 a close friend of Adebolajo's told Cageprisoners, a charity which campaigns for those detained on terrorism charges, that at least three members of Adebolajo's family had been asked to persuade Adebolajo to work for MI5. The family declined to comment.
Adebolajo and a relative went to the office of the charity and spoke about how he had been detained in Kenya, alleging he had been sexually and physically abused, according to Moazzam Begg, the charity's Outreach Director. Begg is a British Muslim who was detained in Guantanamo Bay as a suspected terrorist but released without charge in 2005.
Adebolajo told the charity that after he returned to London he was questioned by MI5 and the police. "He felt that they (MI5) were complicit in what happened to him and he continued thereafter to be approached by them several times by phone calls, certainly by text messages," said Begg.
Kenyan police said they had no knowledge of any involvement by MI5. "We don't know anything about MI5 and Adebolajo. We didn't hear any such thing. We dealt with him only as our suspect then. If he had been communicating with the so-called MI5, that was up to him," Adoli said.
British security services declined to comment.
Cressida Dick, assistant commissioner at London's Metropolitan Police and Britain's top counter-terrorism police office, said contacts between intelligence agents and radicals were not surprising. "It would be ... not unexpected for somebody who may have been suspected of involvement in terrorism to be approached by an intelligence agency," she said. "That's something that intelligence agencies do."
"AN EYE FOR AN EYE"
On May 22, 2013, Lee Rigby was walking down a street in Woolwich, wearing a hooded jumper from the soldiers' charity "Help for Heroes," when Adebolajo and Adebowale knocked him down with their car. A post-mortem concluded that Rigby, an Afghanistan war veteran who had also served in Cyprus, died from "multiple incised wounds" inflicted during the ensuing attack.
Like Adebolajo, Adebowale denied murder. Born in 1991 in south-east London, Adebowale - who prefers to be known as Ismael Ibn Abdullah - was a convert to Islam. His lawyer told the court that in January 2008 Adebowale was stabbed along with a friend who died. Adebowale later suffered from panic attacks and nightmares, said the lawyer.
The court heard from a number of psychiatrists, some pointing to signs of mental illness in Adebowale. He declined to give evidence during the trial and his police interview was never shown to the jury.
After the killing it was Adebolajo who explained his motivation to an onlooker, who filmed him on a smartphone.
"The only reason we have killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers. It is an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," he said while clutching a bloodied knife and meat cleaver, occasionally looking over to the body of the dead soldier.
Police said they later found books and two laptops belonging to Adebolajo that contained articles and lectures with titles including "Extreme Islam," "The book of Jihad" and "Inspire," a magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. One passage from Extreme Islam that had been highlighted read: "Islam is always in need of martyrs."
In court Adebolajo denied the texts belonged to him or his family.
Whether the British authorities could have done more to stop Adebolajo is one of the questions a committee of lawmakers who oversee the intelligence services has begun to examine.
One of Britain's deadliest attacks in peacetime saw more than 50 people killed in 2005 when Islamist militants staged suicide bombings on London's bus and underground train network. Three of the four bombers were British-born. That attack prompted much soul-searching about the integration of Britain's 2.7 million Muslims, shining a spotlight on preachers and mosques suspected of radicalizing young men and, in some cases, pushing them towards extremism.
Many within the Muslim community argue that British-born converts to Islam are most vulnerable to radicalization.
"Vulnerability is that group that doesn't know anything about Islam," said Saeed Omer, a member of the executive committee that runs Greenwich mosque which serves the local Muslim population in Woolwich. "They (extremists) are targeting the children who are born here."
(Additional reporting by Joseph Akwiri in Mombasa; Editing By Richard Woods and Guy Faulconbridge)