Reading terror attacker Khairi Saadallah given whole-life prison sentence for murdering three victims

Attacker had denied terrorist motive and ‘made crude attempts to portray himself as mad’ during police interviews

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent
Monday 11 January 2021 20:53
Terrorist sentenced to life in prison following murder of three people

The Reading terror attacker has been handed a whole-life prison sentence for “brutally” murdering three victims as they sat in a park.

Khairi Saadallah, 26, denied the stabbings had a terrorist motive, but Justice Sweeney ruled on Monday that they were all committed for a “religious, political or ideological cause”.

The judge said Saadallah, who had been released from prison days before, committed the attack in under a minute in Forbury Gardens on 20 June.

He told the Old Bailey that the two groups of friends that he targeted were “doing no more than sitting in the gardens, enjoying being able to be together on a summer evening as the restrictions of the first lockdown were relaxed”.

“His attack on [the murdered victims] was so swift, ruthless and brutal that none of them had any chance to react, let alone defend themselves,” Justice Sweeney said.

“It was only because of the loss thereafter of the element of surprise, that attempts to murder [three other men who were stabbed] failed.”

The Libyan asylum seeker 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 stabbed Patrick Edwards and Nishit Nisudan, who also survived.

In emotional victim impact statements read to the court, bereaved relatives told of their agony and said Saadallah had “brutally killed three of the nicest men in the world”.

Justice Sweeney said that the three counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder admitted by Saadallah all had a terrorist connection, finding that he shouted “God is the greatest” and “God accept my jihad” in Arabic during the attack.

The judge told the court that Saadallah “held extremist Islamic views” while fighting for the Ansar al-Sharia militia as a teenager, during the Libyan civil war.

Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, James Furlong and David Wails, the three victims of the Reading attack

“He continued to do so albeit with lapses, for example in relation to drink and drugs, up to and including the events of 20 June,” Justice Sweeney added.

“His intention, for the purpose of  advancing his extremist Islamic cause, was to kill as many people as possible in as short a time as possible.”

The judge highlighted Saadallah’s viewing of photos of himself with weapons, images of an Isis flag and association with a hate preacher in prison.

Handwritten notes found in his bedroom talked of carrying out jihad and being rewarded by virgins in paradise, and called for the death of “sorcerers and all their supporters”.

The defence had argued that Saadallah should not receive a whole-life order, claiming that there was no extremist motivation and that his culpability was reduced by his mental health.

Rossano Scamardella QC previously told the Old Bailey that while he had a “fleeting or occasional interest” in Islamist ideology, it was not the motive for the attack.

The Old Bailey also heard that Saadallah had converted to Christianity more than a year before the attack, previously worshipped at a church and had a cross tattooed on his leg.

Mr Scamardella 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”.

Justice Sweeney found that Saadallah was not suffering from a mental disorder or mental disability which lowered his degree of culpability for the attack.

He added: “Whilst the offences were shaped by features of the defendant’s personality disorder, there was no substantial impairment of his ability to understand the nature of his conduct, to form a rational judgment or to exercise self-control.

“I am sure that during the defendant’s police interviews, he made crude attempts to portray himself as ‘mad’ at the material time.”

The judge also found that Saadallah had lied about his fighting experience with Ansar al-Sharia, which was later banned as a terrorist group in Britain, while applying for asylum in 2012.

Khairi Saadallah was given a whole-life term for the Reading terror attack

After his arrival in the UK, he committed 16 criminal offences including two of racially or religiously aggravated harassment, eight violent crimes and two involving knife possession.

The day before Saadallah was released from his most recent prison sentence on 5 June, the Home Office notified him of their intention to deport him, but no steps could currently be taken because of the ongoing Libyan conflict.

It was the fourth consecutive terror attack committed by released or serving prisoners in the UK, following incidents at Fishmongers' Hall, HMP Whitemoor and Streatham.

Saadallah had been freed from prison under probation monitoring, and was subject to licence conditions including mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Following the sentencing, Mr Furlong's father raised “serious questions” over why he was free to carry out the killings despite his criminal history.

Gary Furlong said: “After seeking asylum here in 2012 he has obtained a litany of criminal convictions, including assaults on the public, police, and emergency services, along with carrying a bladed weapon … his deportation was in the public interest but for legal reasons it could not happen.

“Despite his criminal history and threats made before the attack, he was then released back into society immediately and was freely able to commit this horrendous act on the public.”

Detective Chief Superintendent Kath Barnes, head of Counter Terrorism Policing South East, said the attack had “lasting effects” on the survivors.

“The horrors of this incident took just a single minute to unfold,” she added. “In that tiny timeframe, he changed the lives of all those involved forever.”

She paid tribute to the witnesses in the park and those who gave first aid to the victims. Priti Patel said “justice has been served” by the whole-life term.  

“While nothing can undo the pain and suffering of the victims’ families, I hope that this sentence brings some degree of comfort to them and everyone who was affected by the appalling attack at Forbury Gardens,” the home secretary added.