A supporter of the banned Islamic State terror group has been jailed for life with a minimum term of 14 years after admitting a plot to blow herself up in a bomb attack on St Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Muslim convert Safiyya Shaikh was caught after an elaborate operation – but her case raised doubts in court about whether the drug-addicted and emotionally damaged woman would ever have gone through with the attack.
Shortly before midday on 24 September last year at Uxbridge London Underground station, Safiyya Shaikh had finished wiping away her tears.
She’d found a soulmate – a woman called Azra, who had consoled her as she poured her heart out. And then Shaikh, happy she had found someone who understood, handed over two pink bags so that her new friend could take them away and fill them with bombs to blow up St Paul’s Cathedral.
As they parted, Azra would probably have stopped the covert recording she had been making. She and other undercover investigators had slowly, patiently, reeled in Shaikh – saving London from an appalling attack.
Shaikh was born Michelle Ramsden in 1983 and converted to Islam in 2007 after being impressed with the kindness of a neighbouring Muslim family.
Her adoption of the faith came after a deeply troubled upbringing. She’d spent time in care homes and later confided to one undercover officer that her family was riven by drug and alcohol abuse. She too had become an addict.
“It was the only life I really knew,” she said. “Inside my heart always felt empty – I think this [is] why I used drugs to try to fill the emptiness,” she wrote in one message online.
In the years that followed her conversion to Islam, the Old Bailey heard she had become increasingly distanced from her own family. She initially found a new family – the small community of female converts in London who supported others on the same faith journey.
But drugs soon overwhelmed her. In 2013 she was cautioned for theft and given a community order for burglary. Two years later she was arrested for heroin possession.
Rajan Basra has studied Shaikh’s online footprint as part of his research at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London.
“It’s clear that she had several underlying vulnerabilities – she created a [YouTube] list specifically about surviving drug addiction,” he says.
“Her Facebook content shows that she was very isolated from her family. And like many converts, she found it difficult to make that transition – and so she was reaching out to other people in a similar situation.”
Looking at the 90 YouTube playlists Shaikh created, a change in her mindset could be seen – particularly around 2016 – said Mr Basra.
“Throughout this whole period, she was then watching a lot of extremist content – content produced by supporters and activists generally affiliated with the Islamic State,” he said. “And judging by the playlist that she created, she was watching this for hours.”
Evidence from court shows that she was in contact with members of Al Muhajiroun, the British network headed by the jihadist preacher Anjem Choudary. One particular influence on her life was Abu Waleed, whose real name is Shahid Janjua. He sent her extremist material – and when she began to voice these opinions within the convert community, she found herself ostracised.
Between August 2016 and September 2017, the national Prevent scheme – in which police, social services and others aim to stop people sliding towards violent extremism – looked three times at Shaikh.
She denied having extremist views but MI5 ultimately reached a different assessment, based on its own intelligence-gathering. It made her a “subject of interest” – one of the 3,000 potential or active terrorists under investigation.
And those concerns were justified.
Shaikh had become an administrator of “GreenB1rds”, a secret jihadist chat channel dedicated to encouraging attacks in the name of the Islamic State group. She posed as a man, using the nom-de-guerre Al Amriki, “the American”, to maximise her chances of encouraging others to join up.
When one Dutch follower was arrested last summer, Shaikh posted a picture threatening an attack against a church in the city of Hilversum, near Amsterdam.
The picture was shared on mainstream social media – and then made it into Dutch newspapers, causing alarm in the city.
In turn, there was a bomb hoax against the church – causing a major alert.
Shaikh joked online: “Kuffar [disbelievers] always publish my work they don’t even realise they promote for us.”
Another of her online contacts was a Dutch woman, Yousra Lemouesset.
She had previously been banned from the UK – and had joined her British fighter husband in Syria. His fate is unclear but she returned to Europe and since Shaikh’s arrest, she’s been jailed in The Netherlands for assisting the IS group.
On 18 August last year, Shaikh went to Luton Airport to fly to Amsterdam to meet Lemousset. But she was stopped from flying by counter-terrorism officers who questioned her about her plans.
Furious, she returned home and, with her helpers, created an image of the New York skyline. In lettering mimicking blood, she added: “PIGS YOU WILL SOON PAY FOR YOUR CRIMES”.
And two days later, she thought she had finally met someone who could help.
She began talking online to someone she called “H”. He appeared to be an IS attack planner in the UK but “H” did not exist – he was a fake identity, operated by an undercover team, tracking extremists on social media.
These “Online Role Players” are now key in the fight against potential lone attackers – seeking to infiltrate hidden chat groups and identifying the most dangerous suspects.
“I rather die young and get Jannah [heaven], quickest way possible,” she told “H”.
The officer asked what she wanted.
After a few days of thought, she replied: “So this is really what I want… I would like to kill a lot brother. Until I’m killed.”
“I would like do church… But want to do a place that also means something to kuffar. Like history. They will care more about the building than people killed… U know where they do the royal weddings? Is it possible to put, like, bomb with detonator and then keep shooting until I am killed?”
She meant St Paul’s Cathedral.
“Have you thought how you would do it?” H asked her.
“No brother, I don’t know.. I just want to do the most effective way possible. I don’t know a lot about them things,” she replied.
“But you must have an idea sis, so I can help?” he said.
Shaikh’s plan evolved in the following days to one involving a bomb for the landmark, another for herself and possibly another for a nearby hotel.
“I just want a lot to die… I had all the intentions to do this, but no other support,” she told him.
On 7 September, she posted a document to her chat group on how to carry out surveillance of a target. The next morning, she visited the cathedral, carrying a pink bag that she thought would be right for a bomb and later reported back.
“I really thought it would not be possible. But it’s easy,” she wrote.
“So would you want it in the bag or strapped to you like vest? Or no vest?” asked “H”.
“I think bag better,” said Shaikh. “What u think? Or both? Won’t it be a bigger explosion, if both? Sorry, I expect a lot – lol.”
“I agree but it’s your niyyah [intention]. I need to know so I can prepare.”
“Is that OK then.. Both… U will teach me everything to do?”
“H” told Shaikh that she would now need to meet his “wife”, Azra, for the handover of the bags – and to measure her up for a body-worn suicide bomb.
Shaikh agreed a time and place and replied: “Am so happy to have family.”
The women met on 22 September in west London. Azra was recording everything Shaikh said.
“I had the really horrible path [sic],” said Shaikh. “I want forgiveness for everything in my life that I’ve done.”
She began to cry.
“I’m scared of not going to Jannah [heaven]… I’ve had enough of this place… I want to give something back.”
The pair, fully veiled to hide their identities, walked back to the Tube station. And there, Shaikh handed over the two bags for bombs.
Days later, she was arrested.
Shaikh pleaded guilty in February to preparing the attack. But Benjamin Newton, defending, argued at the Old Bailey that all was not what it seemed.
The first day of the police interviews had to be abandoned, he said, because Shaikh was in a state of heroin withdrawal.
“The terrorism attack that she is guilty of preparing would have been a truly dreadful act, if carried out, and she recognises that,” said Mr Newton.
“The key words are ‘if carried out’. Three people were involved in this plot, and two others were police officers. There was no bomb, there never would be. There were only police officers pretending to care about her, offering her words of encouragement to see how far she would go.”
Mr Newton said Shaikh had “cold feet”. She had cancelled a second meeting with the “wife” and had asked to put back the attack from Christmas to Easter.
“It is quite clear that her involvement in the organisation that she became involved in were all part of a craving to be part of a family that she never had.
“She was desperate for those she engaged with to like and accept her,” said Mr Newton.
Alison Morgan QC, prosecuting, put it another way to the court.
“Had the role player not sat in this position, she would have found an equivalent.”
And in a final twist to her tale – that’s exactly what Safiyya Shaikh then confirmed herself. Hours after her defence mitigation finished in court, she made a call from prison, that was recorded as standard. A call she knew the authorities would have been listening to.
“I’m so tired about things,” she said to her confidante. “I didn’t get cold feet yeah… I was ready to go through with it… I wasn’t having doubts.”
Under the law, the officers did nothing wrong in playing a role that allowed them to gather critical evidence about Shaikh’s intentions and preparations. There is no defence in the British courts of “entrapment” – and the transcripts in the case show the officers asking questions, rather than proposing specific targets.
Rajan Basra at King’s College London says her case shows how difficult it is to work out how to intervene successfully in the life of a potential terrorist before they go too far.
“Radicalisation is not always a straight line,” he says. “She could have waxed and waned in her support for the cause. And so the key thing with prevention services is you have to get there at the right time.
“And then that support has to be consistent – and it has to have that long-term payoff. It’s really difficult to say what more that service could have done.”