Exeter bombing suspect was 'brainwashed', friends insist

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The man who is suspected of detonating a bomb in an Exeter restaurant on Thursday was described by police and friends last night as a vulnerable and mentally disturbed "friendly giant", who had been "brainwashed" by people seeking to convert him to Islam.

The picture emerged as armed police held two men outside a café in Plymouth near where the suspect, Nicky Reilly, lives with his mother. Eyewitnesses said two non-white men were arrested after being held "at point-blank" range during the operation.

Rebecca Pope, 25, said she was looking out of a window above the Bagatelle cafe when suddenly "everyone was screaming", after two men sitting outside with a baby in a pushchair were accosted.

Mr Reilly, who is 22, was being questioned by police last night. Reports said that the bomb which exploded in the Giraffe restaurant in the Princesshay shopping centre at around 12.50pm on Thursday was made up of chemicals and nails. Police have CCTV footage that shows Mr Reilly travelling on a double-decker Stagecoach bus NoX38 from Plymouth, along with other passengers, before reaching the restaurant, where he was arrested after the explosion.

"We know that between 10.26 and 10.40, 54 other passengers boarded the same bus and travelled to the main bus station in Paris Street, Exeter, arriving just after midday," a police spokesman said.

Mr Reilly was slightly injured, but nobody else was hurt. Police refused to confirm the reports about contents of the bomb.

Last night those who know Mr Reilly backed the theory first floated by police that Mr Reilly, who has a history of mental illness, was "preyed upon".

Deputy Chief Constable Tony Melville has said: "We believe that despite his weak and vulnerable state, he was preyed upon, radicalised and taken advantage of."

One neighbour, Daniel Turner, 20, said Mr Reilly "started acting weird" after beginning to attend mosque meetings two years ago. "He is mentally ill and probably has the mental age of a 10 year old," he said. "He was brainwashed into becoming a Muslim by local men. He can't think for himself.

"Nicky is schizophrenic. We call him the Big Friendly Giant but he clearly met up with the wrong people."

Another neighbour, 17-year-old Ali Turner, said Mr Reilly's computer screensaver was an image of the burning Twin Towers and added: "He did not talk to many people. He was a bit of a recluse. He did not have many friends locally. I think he got brainwashed."

Mr Turner said that Mr Reilly – described as white, 6ft 1in tall and heavily built – changed his name to Mohammed Rasheed.

Another local resident, Scott Allen, 19, said that groups of what he believed were Muslim men had been gathering in the area "in increasing numbers".

"We wondered why they were standing around," he added. "I would say they picked on him because of his vulnerability. He had always been a follower and had always wanted friends. Mr Allen said there was considerable local sympathy for Mr Reilly.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the local Islamic Centre, Syed Rahman, said Mr Reilly may have prayed at the mosque but denied any knowledge of him.

"Certainly no one who attends our mosque has anything to do with extremism," he said. "This guy may have come to us, but we do not know him and we do not recognise him."

At lunchtime yesterday a bomb disposal team arrived at Mr Reilly's home in the Stonehouse area of Plymouth. The £230m Exeter shopping centre which houses the Giraffe restaurant reopened last night.