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HomeNewsNiall McCrae: From altar boy to suicide bomber – radicalisation made flesh

Niall McCrae: From altar boy to suicide bomber – radicalisation made flesh


Perspiring in his dank cell, Terrence Kelly had plenty of time to take stock of his life. There had been more rough than smooth, and now here he was, locked up with petty thieves and violent drug addicts in a Riyadh jail. As a Westerner he was fortunate: for his crime of producing and selling alcoholic drink, he was sentenced to eight months; a local man might be facing a public termination in ‘Chop-Chop’ Square.

Kelly made headlines last week for his own choice of death, at the age of 49. Near Mosul in Iraq, he undertook a suicide mission for Islamic State, driving an armoured vehicle packed with explosives into Shia militants, killing and wounding dozens. The twisted Caliphate released a photograph celebrating his martyrdom, showing grey-bearded Khalid Kelly (as he was commonly known) in baseball hat and long robe, with dagger and bloodied belt, mobile telephone and a Kalashnikov assault rifle. How did it come to this?

Perhaps in his imprisonment, Kelly looked back on past turmoil. Born in Dublin, he was a Catholic altar boy, potentially destined for priesthood. Was be abused? Qualifying as a nurse, he practised in an intensive care unit, before opting for midwifery training, an unusual step for a man. Male midwives need a fine balance of a thick skin and sensitivity, and for the few up and down the country, their path will never be easy. Motives and competence may be questioned, while some women dislike male eyes and hands in this most personally-exposing situation. Kelly would surely have faced some existential doubts in this short-lived career.

In 1996 he took a nursing post in Saudi Arabia, but must have found the Wahhabi strictures suffocating. Illegally distilling alcoholic beverages at his abode, he was aware that many Saudis had a taste for intoxicating liquor. A lucrative trade ended abruptly when he was caught by police. In serving his punishment, Kelly converted to Islam, and at last found his niche. He would become another datum in the mounting evidence that prison is the midwife of jihadism.

Back in London, Kelly became acquainted with radical cleric Omar Bakri and his right-hand man Anjem Choudary, both of whom have since been convicted of fomenting terrorism. As a prominent member of the extremist group al-Muhajiroun, he spoke at rallies. He found a wife in Pakistan, untainted by the degradation of Western culture, and brought her to London where they had three children. The oldest son was named Osama, after the heroic leader of al-Qaeda.

In 2011 Kelly returned to Ireland, alone. In a small town in County Longford, 70 miles inland from Dublin, he told neighbours that his name was Adam Deen, and that he had moved there to write a book. However, he didn’t stay quiet for long. After starting a group Islam for Ireland, he appeared on the popular Late, Late Show on Irish television with Anjem Choudary. Interviewed for a documentary on Irish Muslims, he declared his wish to kill coalition troops in Afghanistan, although this was not broadcast due to laws on incitement.  Kelly threatened to kill the American president on his visit to Dublin, describing Barack Obama as an ‘enemy of Islam’, for which he was arrested but released without charge.

With the authorities on his case, Kelly left for Pakistan to train with the Taliban. Using the nom de guerre Abu Usama al-Irelandi, his final destination was Islamic State. Here he met hundreds of fellow legionnaires from the West, including many of white Christian background. Whether peaceable or violent, the zeal of the convert is a well-known phenomenon, as shown in analysis by the Pew Research Center. In Britain, at least 5,000 per year convert to Islam, and a high proportion of these occur in prison. The religion of Mohammed offers a narrative of the West as an immoral, materialist and oppressive system, in contrast with the apparently equitable and inclusive Islam.

The Prevent scheme to nip extremism in the bud has a very difficult task. Inevitably attacked by Muslim bodies and the liberal-Left media, it has been cast as an official endorsement of Islamophobia. Community engagement is crucial, but moderate Muslims are cowed by the fundamentalist bullies who have been allowed to establish themselves as ‘community leaders’.

For the hard Left, Islamists are the classic friend of a shared enemy. Kelly could have become a soldier not of the Taliban but the IRA. In nationalist areas of Belfast today, Palestinian flags appear aside the tricolour. On British university campuses, Islamists are seen as the shock troops for Marxists and anarchists striving for the overhaul of Western society. Terrorism is excused, if not supported, by angry white agitators. Despite their sympathies, few of would ever be tempted by submission to Allah. But among those who take to the Koran are some volatile young men and women who will stop at nothing to enact their new identity in the most destructive way. There are more like Khalid Kelly to come.

(Image: Day Donaldson)

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