LONDON — Have you ever had that "Oh my God" experience of seeing a face you know on TV as a suspect in a crime? I imagine a lot of people in Cambridge, Massachusetts gasped when they first saw the pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers.
I had it Wednesday, seeing the video footage of confessed murderer Michael Adebolajo, his hands smeared in blood after hacking to death Lee Rigby, a British soldier outside his barracks in southeast London.
I instantly knew I had seen this guy before and I knew exactly where: nine years ago, at a lecture by radical Muslim cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed. But I questioned my memory — it was a long time ago. Then, Friday's papers carried interviews with Bakri Mohammed where he acknowledged converting the young man to Islam around the same time.
My memory was confirmed.
Nine years ago, I was making a radio documentary, British Jihad: Inside Out, and was invited to record a "teaching" session of Bakri Mohammed.
Mohammed's group, al-Muhajiroun, courted publicity, although most of the publicity they got was of the ironic mocking sort. The cleric's ideas seemed off the wall and to some reporters the guy seemed more like a clown than a dangerous radical.
As soon as I arrived at the meeting place in London's Bethnal Green neighborhood, I realized this was deadly serious stuff at least to the men attending (women and children were at the back of the hall).
Of the 60 or so in attendance, most were simply there to listen — to hear their grievances against the country in which they found themselves living confirmed, and their views about Islam affirmed.
But about a dozen of the men were frightening. Their eyes burned in a way that I have seen in those at the front of mob situations and also in police stations among those detained and waiting to be taken to psychiatric wards. It's a rage in the eyes that doesn't seem to be connected back to the calming processes of thought in the brain. Anger crackles off these folk like high-voltage electric current.
Michael Adebolajo had that look in his eye and that energy coming off him. That's why I remembered him.
This is the sort of thing Adebolajo would have "learned" listening to Omar Bakri Mohammed, who taught "tawheed," the concept that a Muslim's first and only allegiance is to Islam:
"You give up democracy and liberalism and freedom," Bakri Mohammed said that night. "The Magnificent 19 brought down the World Trade Center, but they weren't on a suicide mission. We call it a self-sacrifice operation."
There is no man-made law, only God's law, you have no obligation to obey man's law...
And on and on.
Most chilling was his shrug-of-the-shoulders fatalism. You die when Allah says you must die. Sometimes those on “self-sacrifice” missions don't die. It was not their time. If innocent people are killed as part of your operation, well, it was their time. Allah had willed it.
Listening to Bakri Mohammed, I had my belief in the First Amendment and the absolute right to freedom of speech shaken to the core. There was no doubt what he was trying to do here: encourage these men to take arms against Britain. He was teaching them that if anyone died as a result of their action it was not their fault but the will of God, before whom all men must bow down as slaves.
I interviewed the cleric a week later at a mosque in Woolwich, not far from where this week's murder took place. I reminded him that if he taught the same lessons in his native Syria or Saudi Arabia he would be taken to prison, tortured and possibly executed.
He smiled and reminded me that he had indeed had to flee Syria and been deported from Saudi Arabia. But, so what? He didn't believe in free speech or other western values. Here in Britain he was challenging the society, If he was banned, he said, "Ideologically you don't practice what you preach. For you, it is Catch-22."
A year later, on July 7, 2005, four young men who had attended Bakri Mohammed's lessons in other parts of the country blew themselves up on public transport in London killing 52 people.
Their martyrdom videos mimicked precisely the kind of phrases I heard the cleric use. When I saw the video of Adebolajo, the young man was using the same kind of language
Bakri Mohammed left the UK for Lebanon a month after the 7/7 attack. There has never been any accusation against him — he had nothing to do with that atrocity. The ideas he planted in the bombers' minds — well, there are many other preachers saying and writing the same stuff.
Maybe the Tsarnaev brothers watched some videos of Bakri Mohammed — he continues to post videos online. They surely watched other preachers who taught similar lessons. There is an ocean of words for the disaffected to swim in.
Even now, in a new decade, in a new era, one in which people in America, Britain and “the West” are more focused on economic insecurity than radical Islam, the seeds planted in Bakri Mohammed's teaching circle continue to bear their poisonous fruit.