LONDON (Reuters) - Two British Muslim converts were found guilty of murder on Thursday after hacking a soldier to death in broad daylight on a London street in a gruesome killing that horrified the nation.
The murder, its impact magnified by video footage showing the culprits with blood soaked hands explaining their actions, provoked a rise in hate crimes against Muslims in Britain, anti-Islamist street protests and government promises of tougher action on radical Islamist preachers.
British spy chiefs are facing questions over whether they could have prevented the attack on Drummer Lee Rigby, charges that echo previous criticisms of the security services.
A jury at London’s Old Bailey criminal court took just over 90 minutes to unanimously find Michael Adebolajo, 29, and Michael Adebowale, 22, guilty of murdering Rigby, 25, an Afghan war veteran, near an army barracks in Woolwich, southeast London, on May 22.
The court heard they had driven around the area looking for a soldier and ran over Rigby, attacking his unconscious body with knives and a meat cleaver and trying to behead him.
They then dragged his corpse into the middle of the road where Adebolajo asked a bystander to video them, brandishing their weapons with their hands covered blood, as he calmly explained what he had done to the shock of startled passers-by.
“We swear by almighty Allah we will never stop fighting you. The only reason we’ve killed this man today is because Muslims are dying daily by British soldiers,” Adebolajo said minutes after murdering Rigby, who had a two-year-old son.
“He is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
Further dramatic footage captured the two men trying to ambush armed police as they arrived on the scene. Adebolajo charged towards a police car wielding a cleaver while Adebowale waited, clutching a rusty, unloaded revolver before officers shot and wounded them.
The two men were found not guilty of the attempted murder of a police officer.
During the trial, the pair never denied killing Rigby but Adebolajo argued the act should not be considered murder but an act of war - a war for Allah in response to Britain’s foreign policy and Western wars in nations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I am a soldier of Allah. This is war,” Adebolajo told the court during calm, composed testimony watched by tearful members of Rigby’s family including his partner and mother.
The Crown Prosecution Service said it would ask the court to find that the murder was motivated by terrorism when the defendants come to be sentenced in January.
After the men were convicted of murder, Rigby’s family told reporters outside the court that justice had been served.
“Unfortunately no amount of justice can bring Lee back. These people have taken him away from us forever,” they said in a prepared statement.
The Woolwich attack was the first killing by Islamist militants in London since four young British Muslims murdered 52 people in al Qaeda-inspired suicide bombings on the capital’s transport network in July 2005.
Britain’s MI5 domestic intelligence agency is facing an investigation into whether it could have done more to stop the Woolwich attack, with a parliamentary committee examining what security services knew about the two men.
Both are Muslim converts from Christian Nigerian families and, while it was not clear how they met, they previously handed out radical Islamist pamphlets in nearby areas and attended protests by the banned organisation Al Muhajiroun, many of whose members have been convicted of terrorism offences.
They were known to MI5, but it said they were not considered serious threats.
Friends and colleagues of Adebolajo have also alleged he was tortured and sexually abused in custody after being arrested in Kenya en route to Somalia, and then later harassed by MI5 agents, suggesting this might have pushed him over the edge.
“If we had known or if it had been assessed that these people were going to carry out an attack, we would have done everything in our power to try to stop it,” said Cressida Dick, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer.
Dick said Rigby’s murderers appeared “lone wolves”, acting without instruction either at home or from abroad.
Prime Minister David Cameron has described Rigby’s killing as an act of terrorism and a “betrayal of Islam”.
Editing by Stephen Addison, Belinda Goldsmith and Mike Collett-White