Reading park killer had long history of violence

By Daniel De Simone and Daniel Sandford
BBC News

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image captionDavid Wails, Joe Ritchie-Bennett and James Furlong had no idea what was happening, prosecutors said

The killer who murdered three friends in a Reading park last summer had a long history of violence.

James Furlong, David Wails, and Joseph Ritchie-Bennett were stabbed in a carefully planned knife attack on a warm June evening as the first lockdown was easing.

The attacker was known to MI5, had told the government about his earlier involvement with a banned Libyan militia and had made threats to kill in the very year he carried out the attack in Forbury Gardens.

Khairi Saadallah, 26, originally from Tripoli, came to the UK in 2012, having fought in the Libyan revolution as a teenager.

When applying for asylum, he told Home Office officials he had been in the Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sharia - which would later be banned in the UK as a terrorist organisation - but lied by claiming he had not fought himself, saying: "I did not shoot or use any weapons.

"I just helped them, plus guarded some hospitals."

image copyrightFacebook
image captionKhairi Saadallah posing with a gun on social media

He described refusing to torture people and said a fatwa had subsequently been issued against him.

In 2019, police recovered a mobile phone from Saadallah that he had used to view social-media images of himself in Libya as a boy, holding firearms, wearing military fatigues, and showing off bullets arranged into a letter "K" for "Khairi".

By then, he had spent years in and out of prison for a range of violent offences, including:

  • multiple assaults on police officers and emergency workers
  • racially aggravated harassment
  • possessing knives
  • causing suffering to animals

On one occasion, while being arrested, he called a female officer a "slave" and spat in her face, with the victim saying it was the "vilest thing" she had been subjected to in the police.

Saadallah, who spent time in Manchester and Reading, lived a chaotic lifestyle involving periods of homelessness, as well as drug and alcohol misuse.

image copyrightFacebook
image captionSaadallah using drugs in another image posted on Facebook

While in jail in 2017, he was noted by the prison authorities to be spending significant time with the notorious Islamist radicaliser Omar Brooks, also known as Abu Izzadeen, a long-time member of the now outlawed group al-Muhajiroun.

In 2019, MI5 was told Saadallah might wish to travel to Syria - but, after an assessment, he was discounted as a threat and therefore not investigated.

Early last year, he successfully applied to the court of appeal to reduce a prison sentence, meaning he was eventually released eight months earlier than expected.

He had been twice refused asylum but, following a judicial review in 2018, was granted leave to remain for five years.

He had previously volunteered to leave the UK, but changed his mind.

'Rape Britain'

The day before his release in June, two weeks before the attack, he was told in a letter that the home secretary had "decided that your deportation is conducive to the public good" but it was not legally possible given conditions in Libya.

A fellow inmate, Anthony Bloomfield, says that, in the months before he was released, Saadallah:

  • openly threatened knife violence
  • discussed "jihad"
  • said he wanted to "rape Britain"

Speaking to BBC News, Bloomfield recalls Saadallah telling others:

  • If he "could get away with it, he'd kill as many people as possible"
  • "He'd be the front line for when it comes to drawing a sword and drawing blood and attacking people"

"People used to laugh at it as a joke," Bloomfield says.

But maybe it was a "bit more serious than we took him for".

Mental state

On release, Saadallah returned to a flat in Reading and soon began preparing an attack, visiting Forbury Gardens, researching it online, and eventually buying a large knife in a local supermarket.

The night before the attack, local officers visited Saadallah after his brother Aiman rang police to raise concerns about his mental state.

Body-worn video from the two-minute encounter shows Saadallah reassuring the officers, who asked how he was feeling and whether he had enough food.

"You're not in trouble," one officer told him.

"We're just here to check you're all right."

All the while, the carrier-bag containing the knife was visible on the floor behind Saadallah.

'Harming himself'

His brother, Aiman, who raised the alarm, says his warning was "very serious".

"I said that my brother was at risk of harming himself or others," he tells BBC News.

"I asked for the police to detain him under the Mental Health Act because he was in no state to be left by himself.

"I do believe that a lot could have been done.

"And, if it had, lives would have been saved that day.

"And I'm saying this not to defend my brother.

"But I think victims and victims' families deserve to know the truth."

Running swiftly

The attack itself, on the evening of 20 June, was described by prosecutors as "ruthless and lethal", amounting to "highly effective executions" conducted so quickly that those who died had no idea what was happening.

In 30 seconds, Saadallah murdered three men with single stab wounds and attempted to murder three others, running swiftly at different groups of friends sitting in the park.

Prosecutors said the similarity of the three lethal wounds revealed training on Saadallah's part, whether "because of his military background in Libya or from his own research".

image copyrightPA Media
image captionPolice forensic tents in the park after the attack

He shouted: "Allahu Akbar [God is greatest]," as he attacked and again as he ran away into Reading town centre, where he was chased and arrested by unarmed police.

'Feign madness'

Examined by psychiatrists, he was found to have no mental illness.

Earlier symptoms suggesting otherwise had been short-lived and attributable to drug misuse at the relevant times, they said.

The most recent report concluded:

  • He had an "antisocial personality disorder" and had "rather crudely attempted to feign madness in police custody"
  • His "offences were conducted in a pre-meditated, planned and carefully executed manner".
  • He "knew that what he was doing was wrong"

Saadallah pleaded guilty to his crimes but denied a terrorist motive. The judge rejected this and handed him a whole life order, meaning he will never be released from prison.

The judge found Saadallah had committed a terrorist attack motivated by his Islamist extremist ideology. He said that Saadallah was not mentally ill.

Previously, only one of those who killed Lee Rigby and the man who murdered Jo Cox have received whole life orders from judges for murders motivated by ideology.

Inquests are expected to take place and will examine various issues, including how Saadallah was handled by the authorities.

The judge said the victims "were doing no more" than enjoying one another's company on a summer's evening.

Following sentencing, James Furlong's father Gary said there are "now serious questions that need answering" about how his son's attacker was free to kill.