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The murder of Lee Rigby: 10 years on

Lee Rigby
Image Credit: David Warren / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Floral tributes for Fusilier Lee Rigby at War Memorial Park in Coventry on the 5th June 2013.

Ten years on from the shocking killing of Lee Rigby, we look back at what happened on that horrible day in Woolwich and at the fallout of the savage attack.

Who was Lee Rigby?

Originally from Middleton, Greater Manchester, Lee Rigby had wanted to become a soldier since he was a young boy. He fulfilled that dream in 2006 when he joined the British Army. A drummer and machine gunner with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, he was, in the words of his commanding officer, ‘a true warrior and served with distinction in Afghanistan, Germany and Cyprus’.

At the time of his murder, the popular and outgoing 25-year-old had been based at Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich. It was on 22nd May 2013 that Rigby, walking back to the barracks after a day working at the Tower of London, was spotted by two radicalised men bent on murder.

Who were Lee Rigby’s killers?

Michael Adebolajo, 28, and Michael Adebowale, 22, had been on a mission to kill a British soldier claiming to do so in the name of Islam. Adebolajo later told police that this was the most justifiable kind of terrorist act in his eyes, since a soldier ‘joins the army with kind of an understanding that your life is at risk.’

Both men were of Nigerian heritage and had been raised in Christian households before converting to Islam. Adebolajo, the more dominant of the duo, was spurred in his radicalisation by his disgust for the Iraq War. He became an active member of the later-banned Islamist group Al-Muhajiroun, attending protests and even doing time for assaulting a police officer. He later became embroiled in Islamist activity in Africa and was well known to MI5.

His younger accomplice Michael Adebowale had had a traumatic youth. Involved in drug dealing and gang violence from his early teens, he’d survived a vicious fight in 2008 which saw a friend ‘literally cut to pieces’ before his eyes. Adebowale, who was stabbed during that incident, suffered a sharp mental decline, and talked about hearing voices and being visited by spirits known as djinns. He became a radical Islamist around this time and mutual acquaintances brought him into contact with Michael Adebolajo.

What happened to Lee Rigby?

On 22nd May, Adebolajo and Adebowale had been driving around for a little while before they spotted Lee Rigby. They guessed that he was an off-duty soldier from his ‘Help for Heroes’ top, military camouflage backpack, and the proximity of the barracks.

Rigby was crossing a road when the terrorists ploughed their car straight into him, knocking him the ground. The men got out of the vehicle and started hacking at Rigby with knives and a meat cleaver, attempting to decapitate him.

Adebolajo, his hands covered with Rigby’s blood, addressed passers-by directly, saying, ‘We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we have done this is because Muslims are dying every day. This British soldier is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’

Ominously, he also promised, ‘You people will never be safe.’

The relative calmness of the scene, with the blood-soaked killers simply standing there talking to witnesses, made it as surreal as it was grotesque. One onlooker, Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, even attempted to maintain the peace by engaging the men in calm discussion about British foreign policy. Moments later, Adebolajo and Adebowale were both shot and wounded by police officers, bringing the immediate danger to an end.

What happened afterwards?

The graphic murder of an off-duty soldier in broad daylight profoundly shook the nation. The killing was roundly condemned by Muslim community leaders, with the Muslim Council of Britain stating, ‘Muslims have long served in this country’s Armed Forces, proudly and with honour. This attack on a member of the Armed Forces is dishonourable, and no cause justifies this murder.’

Nevertheless, the crime was immediately weaponised by Islamophobes and the far-right. Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, used it as a pretext for attacking immigration, and members of the English Defence League got into a violent clash with police during a protest at Woolwich Arsenal station. Almost 200 Islamophobic incidents were reported in the week following the killing, including the petrol bombing of a mosque in Grimsby and graffiti being scrawled on Muslim-owned businesses.

The terrorists pleaded not guilty to murdering Lee Rigby, claiming that they were soldiers of Allah who’d embarked on a ‘military operation’ that day in Woolwich. The jury disagreed, taking just 90 minutes to find them both guilty in December 2013. The men were hauled back into court a few months later for a sentencing hearing that descended into chaos.

Michael Adebolajo was handed a whole life term, while Michael Adebowale was told he would have to spend at least 45 years behind bars. Disruption was triggered when the judge told them their crime was a ‘betrayal of Islam and of the peaceful Muslim communities who give so much to our country’.

Adebowale angrily yelled ‘That’s a lie’ and Adebolajo shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a scuffle broke out with security guards. Adebolajo wound up being pinned to the floor, legs kicking in the air, before he was carried head-first back to the cells. His accomplice was dragged out after him, all while Lee Rigby’s family looked on.

Despite the ugliness of this denouement, the family hailed the sentencing and said they felt justice had been served. Their statement outside the court concluded, ‘It just remains to be said: rest in peace, Lee.’