Reading attacker described himself as ‘bit Muslim and Catholic’ after Christian conversion

Khairi Saadallah denies murders were terrorism but prosecutors say he was inspired by Islamist extremism 

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Wednesday 06 January 2021 18:14 GMT
Police release footage of Reading attacker being arrested

The Reading attacker described himself as a “bit Muslim and Catholic” to police after converting to Christianity, a court has heard.

Khairi Saadallah repeatedly shouted “Allahu akbar” as he murdered three victims who were socialising with friends in Forbury Gardens on 20 June, and spoke afterwards of jihad.

But the Old Bailey heard that the 26-year-old Libyan had converted to Christianity more than a year before the attack, previously worshipped at a church and had a cross tattooed on his leg.

Prosecutors allege that the Reading attack was motivated by “extremist Islamic ideology”, and are calling for a judge to impose a rare whole-life prison term.

Saadallah has admitted charges of murder and attempted murder but denies committing an act of terrorism.

He will not be giving evidence at a sentencing hearing where a judge is hearing arguments over his potential motivations.

On Wednesday, his defence barrister argued that while he had a “fleeting or occasional interest” in Islamist ideology, it was not the motive for the attack.

Rossano Scamardella QC said Saadallah was a practicing Christian by March 2019, and would attend a church and light candles.

The court was shown a photo of a cross tattooed on his leg, a small cross that Saadallah possessed, and photos of him inside a church.

A probation officer stated that in July 2019, Saadallah had converted to Christianity and told her that reading the Bible was “keeping the devil out of my head and keeping the angels in my head”.

Mr Scamardella said the defendant, who smoked cigarettes and used drugs and alcohol, did not “behave in a way consistent with someone taking seriously the Muslim faith”.

The Reading attacker, Khairi Saadallah, giving away a copy of the Bible to a neighbour before mounting the attack on 20 June 2020
The Reading attacker, Khairi Saadallah, giving away a copy of the Bible to a neighbour before mounting the attack on 20 June 2020 (Thames Valley Police)

“He also appears to identify as a Christian as well as a Muslim, behaviour that is totally inconsistent and perverse if you are then prepared to kill in furtherance of Islamic extremism,” he added.

“No radical Islamist would countenance the adoption of another faith, it is inconceivable.”

Shortly before leaving home to commit the Reading attack, the court heard that Saadallah gave copies of the Holy Bible and a youth bible to a neighbour, saying it was about a “good life”.

Witnesses heard Saadallah shouting “Allahu akbar”, meaning God is the greatest, during the attack, and phrases including “victory on infidels” and “Allah accept my jihad” as he fled the scene.

Police recorded numerous incidents in custody where Saadallah mentioned jihad, including saying: “I’m going to paradise for the jihad what I did to them.”

Mr Scamardella said the use of the phrases must be “seen in the context of all his other behaviour, most of which is inconsistent with him attempting to advance this cause”.

In a police interview on 24 June, Saadallah denied the murders were a terror attack and described himself as “a bit Muslim and Catholic”.

The court previously heard that Saadallah had associated with notorious Islamist hate preacher Omar Brooks, known as Abu Izzadeen, while serving a prison sentence at HMP Bullingdon between 2016 and 2017.

A prison officer said he appeared “keen” to spend time with the terror convict, but Mr Scamardella said Saadallah had been vulnerable at the time and made no contact after he was freed.

The prosecution highlighted images that had been automatically cached on Saadallah’s phone in the days before the attack showing an Isis flag, the 9/11 attacks and warzones abroad.

Mr Scamardella argued that without knowing how the images came to be saved, it was “too risky” for the court to decide if Saadallah had deliberately sought them out or why.

The lawyer also said that the fact Saadallah had fought for Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, which was later proscribed as an Islamist terrorist group, did not indicate extremism because he was a teenager at the time and the fighting was in the context of the Libyan civil war.

Prosecutors have questioned the reliability of Saadallah’s account of his involvement, but Mr Scamardella said he had left Ansar al-Sharia and fled Libya after militants showed their “true colours” by ordering him to torture a woman.

He said militants opened fire on his family home and that although Saadallah lied in asylum interviews by denying fighting, that was “not important”.

The prosecution highlighted how Saadallah had looked back on Facebook photos of himself with firearms and ammunition before the Reading attack, but Mr Scamardella said it was “not unusual” to look at past pictures and did not prove extremist ideology.

Mr Scamardella also argued that evidence of the significant planning and premeditation required for a whole-life order “does not exist”.

Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, James Furlong and David Wails, the three victims of the Reading attack
Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, James Furlong and David Wails, the three victims of the Reading attack (Thames Valley Police )

He highlighted Saadallah’s history of mental health problems, including suicide attempts and “delusions”.

Two days before the attack, a probation officer had raised concern with a mental health unit after Saadallah told her about a “ghost man” and seeing things flying around and under his bed.

He had also repeatedly searched for information on “black magic” and witchcraft, and Mr Scamardella argued that he should be given a lower prison sentence because of reduced culpability.

A psychologist cited by the prosecution concluded that the delusions on 18 June “had briefly arisen in the context of (at least) skunk cannabis misuse” and that the Reading attack was “unrelated to the effects of either mental disorder or substance misuse”.

Saadallah was found fit to plead and stand trial by previous assessments, and prosecutor Alison Morgan QC said his actions on the day of the attack demonstrated “evidence of an ordered thought process and deliberate calculation”.

She told the judge that if there were no ideological grounds for the attack, she “would question how it was that Saadallah came to murder three people he did not know, and attempt to murder three others, in a sustained attack while making the utterances he did”.

Saadallah killed teacher James Furlong, 36, scientist David Wails, 49, and US citizen Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, 39.

He also stabbed their friend Stephen Young, who survived, then moved on to the second group, where he attacked  Patrick Edwards and Nishit Nisudan, who also survived.

Charlene Ritchie, the mother of victim Mr Ritchie-Bennett, said: ”Everyone loved Joe and he always included everyone in his life. He cared deeply for family, friends and co-workers.

“He always saw the good in people and accepted them as we accepted him.”

Mr Furlong's partner, Tony Belicard, said the pair had “many plans” together and were discussing adopting a child.

He told how Mr Furlong, whose death was mourned by hundreds of current and former pupils, had helped anyone in need including by giving money to a homeless man and assisting a victim of domestic violence.

“With his loss I lost my happiness, my hope and my future,” he added. “If this murderer asked for help rather than taking his life, James would have reached out to him without any hesitation.”

Mr Wails’ brother, Andrew, called Saadallah a “coward” and said he could not describe the “raging hatred” he felt.

“I honestly wish I could inflict some harm on him,” he added. “I punch walls, kick out at things to try to release the anger. Nothing helps, I’m not sure anything will ever take this pain and anger away.”

Mr Justice Sweeney will rule whether the attack was committed for a religious, political or ideological cause, and to what degree Saadallah's mental state influenced his actions, at a sentencing hearing on Monday.

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