Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast #96: Zakaria Bulhan - The "Terrorist" Who Never Was
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Welcome to the Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast and audio guided walk of London's most infamous and often forgotten murder cases, set within and beyond the West End.
On the evening of Wednesday 3rd August 2016, a young Muslim man ran amok in Russell Square, he was armed with a knife and had killed one person and injured five, but as the press jumped to lazy conclusions and branded him as a ‘terrorist’, they missed the fact that he was (literally) fighting demons of his own.
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The location of Russell Square is where the pinky/purple triangle is. To use the map, click it. If you want to see the other murder maps, such as West London, King's Cross, Paddington, etc, access them by clicking here.
Here's two little videos; one of myself showing you Russell Square / Bedford Place where the attacks took place, and another video via Reuters of the aftermath of the attacks. This video is a link to youtube, so it won't eat up your data.
I've also posted some photos to aid your "enjoyment" of the episode. These photos were taken by myself (copyright Murder Mile) or granted under Government License 3.0, where applicable.
Views: top left to bottom right; Russell Square facing the Imperial Hotel (where Darlene Horton was murdered), Bedford Place (where Zakaria was arrested and the last three attacks took place), a different view of Russell Square (where the first two attacks took place) and the road leading from Russell Square to Bedford Place.
Credits: The Murder Mile UK True-Crime Podcast was researched, written and recorded by Michael J Buchanan-Dunne, with the sounds recorded on location (where possible), and the music written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name. Additional music was written and performed as used under the Creative Common Agreement 4.0.
SOURCES: As there isn't a police investigation file in the National Archives I had to use news and court sources to compile the research, these include:
TRANSCRIPT OF THE EPISODE: ZAKARIA BULHAN - THE "TERRORIRST" WHO NEVER WAS
SCRIPT: Welcome to Murder Mile; a true-crime podcast and audio guided walk featuring many of London’s untold, unsolved and long-forgotten murders, all set within and beyond the West End.
Today’s episode is about a city is a state of panic as with a young Muslim man running amok, armed with a knife, who had killed one person and injured five, as the press jumped to lazy conclusions and demonised him as a ‘terrorist’, they missed the fact that he was (literally) fighting demons of his own.
Murder Mile is researched using authentic sources. It contains moments of satire, shock and grisly details, and as a dramatization of the real events, it may also feature loud and realistic sounds, so that no matter where you listen to this podcast, you’ll feel like you’re actually there.
My name is Michael, I am your tour-guide and this is Murder Mile.
Episode 96: Zakaria Bulhan – The Terrorist Who Never Was.
Today I’m standing on Russell Square, in Bloomsbury, WC1; three roads east of the Charlotte Street robbery, two roads west of the unusual death of Vera Crawford, two roads north-east of the Denmark Place Fire and one street east of the deadly Meaux Brewery explosion - coming soon to Murder Mile.
On the opposite side of Soho, just over Tottenham Court Road and surrounded by the familiar districts of Fitzrovia, Covent Garden, Holborn and St Pancras is Bloomsbury - a pricey residential area full of second homes for politicians, a huge university campus and very little else except the British Museum; where overseas visitors all flock to see the treasures we pinched from them many moons ago, like the Elgin Marbles (“cheers mate, I’ll have that”), The Rosetta Stone (“lovely jubbly, chuck it in the van”), Egypt’s famous Cat Mummies (“nah mate, we’re not nicking it, we’re liberating it”), and the Easter Island statue (“yeah, I’ll write you a receipt for it when I get home. Ha-ha-ha. Bye suckers”).
Bloomsbury is a great place for tourists to find a hotel with a truly awful name reflecting very English things, such as The Windsor, The Churchill, The Dickens, The Battle of Britain, the 1966 World Cup, the Fry-up, the Fit Princess, the Racist Prince and the Pizza Express Paedo, all the way down to appallingly named motels like ‘The AAA’, ‘The A1’ and the ‘E Z Hotel’ (dating back to when being on page one of a phone directory actually meant something) and those with names to suit an internet search like ‘the London-England-UK, top-best-great-stay, happy-cheapy-creepy, hotel-motel-B&B-brothel’.
Tourists also flock here is it’s local, peaceful and safe. But during the summer of 2016, with the city on high-alert and the Police presence high, Russell Square was rocked by a murder and five attempted murders, all in the space of a few minutes. The grinning killer was described as a radicalised terrorist hell-bent on death, when in fact, he was just a terrified boy who believed he was fighting for his life.
As it was here, on 3rd August 2016, having armed himself with a large knife, that nineteen-year-old Zakaria Bulhan came with the intent to kill… but those he attacked were not his targets. (Interstitial)
(Distortion/Mixed) “At 10:33pm, Police responded to reports of a stabbing in Russell Square, just yards from the 7/7 tube bombing…”, “…we can confirm that one woman is dead and several are critically injured…”, “…eye-witnesses said the killer was grinning…”, “…he was skipping…”, “…in a frenzied knife attack…”, “…armed Police Tazered a young black man…”, “…an Asian male …”, “….described as either of Iraqi or Somali descent…”, “… Police are investigating links to terrorism and radicalisation…”, “…once again, we ask the question, how safe are we (the people) in our own city?” (Fades out)
In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the tensions of the western world were set on a knife-edge, as no longer did a terrorist originate as an unscrupulous stranger from a foreign land, many were now born and raised inside the society they sought to destroy. But their targets wouldn’t be military or political, as seeking to pummel the people into a state of absolute fear, they opted for soft civilian targets and indiscriminately killed as many bodies as possible, as these innocents went about their everyday lives.
On the 7th July 2005, suicide bombers exploded four devices on London’s bus and tube network, killing 56 people, injuring 784 and inspiring a copy-cat attack two weeks later. On the 26, 27 & 28th November 2008, in Mumbai, India, terrorists shot and killed 174 people, wounding at least 300. 22nd May 2013, Royal Fusilier Lee Rigby was hacked-to-death in broad daylight by recent Islamic converts. 7th January 2015, satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo is attacked, 12 are shot dead, 11 are injured. 13th November 2015 in Paris, bomb attacks and mass-shootings kill 130 people, 413 are injured. 14th July 2015, Bastille Day in Nice, a 19-tonne truck is used by its radicalised driver as a weapon, 86 people are dead and 458 are injured. And on 22nd March 2016, in Brussels, three suicide bombers kill 35 and injure at least 300.
And that was just a small sample, as by 2016, attacks by home-grown terrorists seemed to be hitting home-soil on an almost weekly basis, and the perpetrators were almost always identical; mostly Asian or black youths with shaved heads, bushy beards and innocent faces who came from good families, but being bored, disillusioned and deluded, they were radicalised into committing Jihad.
They were young, impressionable and dangerous, but – worst of all – they came from out of nowhere.
By the summer of 2016, the UK treat level has been increased to ‘severe’, meaning a terrorist attack was ‘highly likely’. Armed officers patrolled the streets, London Mayor Sadiq Khan called for the public to remain “calm but vigilant”, and – ironically - on the 3rd August 2016, Scotland Yard had announced that an extra 600 officers would be deployed in the city following the recent terror attacks.
That night, in Russell Square, a young man of Somali origin went on a bloody killing spree, armed with a large knife and his victims were white and Western. As always happens, we had to blame someone or something; whether drugs, music, films, bad parenting or computer games, but in this case, our gut reaction was to blame it on his “possible” radicalisation by a terrorist group, based on his colour.
In truth, it was us who were to blame, we just couldn’t see it, or wouldn’t see it. Zakaria Bulhan wasn’t a crazed terrorist on a mission from God, he was just a frightened young boy who needed our help.
Zakaria’s parents were born and raised in Somalia, an East African country bordered by Ethiopia, Kenya and the Gulf of Aden. As an unstable region steeped in poverty, corruption and ethnic tension - as war lords, armed militias and government forces fiercely ripped the impoverished nation apart – in 1991, when it’s British rulers unceremoniously dumped yet another dirt-poor country it had stripped of its assets and couldn’t be bothered to clean-up the mess, the second we “graciously” granted Somalia its independence, it descended into a bloody civil war. So violent were the clashes, that in December 1992, the United Nations peace-keeping force intervened, and the civil war remains in place to this day.
In 1994, seeking a better life, Zakaria’s parents fled war-ravaged Somalia to join their relatives in the calmer, cooler and more-peaceful country of Norway. Three years later, with an older sister Segal and later followed by a younger brother Salah, Zakaria was born, and he was healthy, happy and bright.
In 2002, having emigrated to Britain, the five-strong Bulhan family moved into a small council flat on the second floor of Robertson House in Tooting, South London. They worked hard, they lived well and they raised their children to be good decent people, with a smile on their faces and love in their hearts.
It was an unremarkable upbringing typical of many families, they had their ups and downs, struggles and successes, and although Zakaria’s parents would eventually split, for the sake of their children, his mother remarried, his step-father moved in and Zakaria remained in-contact with his father. So, it’s no surprise that the other tenants described them as the “best neighbours you could hope to have”.
Zakaria, nicknamed “Zaky” was a perfect example of a good upbringing by devoted parents who gave him love and support. Raised by a lady who everyone said was “delightful”, Zakaria modelled himself on his mother and - although shy and socially-awkward - being described as a “little gentleman”, he was always polite, helpful and charming, having been blessed with a baby-face and a big bright smile.
In fact, there are no traumatic incidents in his life which would foreshadow the horrifying violence he would bring to the streets of Russell Square, as the sweet-faced killer skipped, grinned and danced, silently slicing, slashing and stabbing a series of innocent people he had never seen or met before.
Zakaria was quite ordinary; he loved football, basketball and music; he had a loving family, a good group of friends and he was never in any trouble; he had no interest in gangs, knives or violence, he had never committed any kind of crime; he liked reading but he wasn’t political, he was proud but he didn’t get into fights, and he didn’t drink, do drugs and he wasn’t keen on social media
Educated at Graveney School in Tooting, as a quiet bookish-boy he was teased for being a “teacher’s pet” simply because he was good at maths, and although he was bullied, he didn’t let it get him down. So, having resat his GCSE’s at sixth form, he went on to study a B-Tech in IT at South Thames College.
Obviously, once the tabloid press discovered that he was young, black and Muslim, the lazy suspicion of radicalisation reared its ugly head, as an easy scape-goat for the horrors which would unfold, but Zakaria was never subverted or coerced. Being too intelligent, loved and open-minded to have his mind poisoned, he was always a moderate Muslim raised to use his faith as a guide to live his life right.
Zakaria didn’t have a bad bone in his body or an evil thought in his heart…
…but by the end of 2015, just six months before the attack, things had started to go wrong.
19-year-old Zakaria had struggled with mental illness for the last four years. What began with anxiety and depression was brushed aside by his GP as a phase that many teenagers experience and grow out of, but as he aged – being cursed by a stigma surrounding mental illness in Somali culture which makes them less likely to seek treatment – his symptoms only escalated the more he sought to supress it.
Becoming more isolated, Zakaria stopped going out, ceased seeing his friends and he quit his college course. Withdrawing within his own mind, his cheeky-face became sullen, his beaming smile was erased and replaced by a terrified grin, and his once eager-eyes were etched red - as with the boy too frightened to fall sleep - over the next six months, Zakaria would try to kill himself three times.
On 20th April 2016, as an out-patient at the National Hospital for Neurology on Queen Square, just one street over from Russell Square, Zakaria was initially diagnosed with anxiety and a depressive disorder.
His symptoms were a perfect fit – sleeplessness, irritability, isolation, depression, lack of motivation and concentration – and given that he had no history of violence to anyone but himself, he was deemed a low-risk, prescribed anti-psychotic drugs and was monitored by the mental health team.
But as a science still in its infancy, it is often said that a person’s mental illness isn’t correctly diagnosed for the first ten years, as many symptoms can be suppressed, masked and can even incubate until they are triggered, and Zakaria’s diagnosis was no exception. Many aspects of this sweet-natured boy may actually have been a symptom, which begs the question; why was he shy, why was he quiet, why could he never speak up, and why could he never look a person in the eye? Was this him, or his illness?
By May, as he withdrew further from the routine of an ordinary life and hid in his bedroom, his hygiene was poor, his thoughts were muddy and he struggled to see where reality began and ended. Out-of-character, an unusually volatile anger rose within him causing his mother to hide the kitchen knives as she worried what he may do, but it wasn’t a hatred that fuelled his fury, but a fear. No longer could Zakaria tell the difference between spoken words and imaginary ones, as a ceaseless cacophony of voices tortured him day-and-night, convincing the terrified boy that he was possessed by a devil.
Only able to trust his brain to tell him the difference between right and wrong, even his senses colluded against him; as in his head he heard voices, in his eyes he saw demons, and on his tongue, he tasted sulphur. After his arrest, Zakaria would finally be diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia and all the warning signs were there that he was about to enter a full-sensory schizophrenic psychosis…
…but this diagnosis would come too late.
Deemed a low-risk, prescribed a mild-drug and with his psychiatric help on a strictly voluntary basis, by the summer of 2016, he wasn’t a powder-keg of religious anger and anti-West hatred, what was bottled-up inside him was absolute terror, as the demons inside his mind conspired to kill him.
And yet, it was all hidden behind the smile of a sweet-faced angel who would never harm a fly.
(Distortion/Mixed) In a statement, the Met’ Police’s Assistant Commissioner said “The UK’s terrorism threat level remains at severe, meaning an attack is considered to be highly likely. As a precautionary measure, Londoners will wake up this morning to notice an increased presence on the streets of armed officers. We would urge the public to remain calm, alert and vigilant”.
(Underneath add in different voices) “Russell Square, 56 dead”, “Mumbai, 174 dead”, “car bombs”, “mass shootings”, “trucks as weapons”, “airplanes hijacked”, “Lee Rigby”, “Charlie Hebdo, 12 dead”, “Paris, 130 dead”, “Nice, 86 dead”, “Brussels, 35 dead”, “a killer in our midst”, “a young black male”, “a young Asian male”, “born in this city”, “heard screaming ‘Allah Akbar’”, “raised just around the corner”, “a good Muslim”, “terrorists”, “a Muslim family”, “death to the West”, “Muslim parents”, “burka”, “hajib”, “jihad”, “Koran”, “attended a local mosque”, “possible links to radical Islam”, “radical Muslims”, “radical views”, “extremists”, “ISIS”, “ISIL”, “radicalisation”. (Build to a crescendo / fade).
Wednesday 3rd August 2016 began as an unremarkable day; there were highs of 25 degrees, blue skies and a cool breeze; the summer had started, the city was busy and as the public holiday had begun, so Mrs Bulhan and her youngest son went to visit her family in Holland, as Zakaria stayed with his dad.
But just hours later, the West End would be rocked to the sounds of screams and sirens, as in a six-minute bloody rampage, five people would be stabbed and one person would be dead.
(Call to prayer) Three miles from Russell Square in Whitechapel, Zakaria and his father walked into the East London Mosque for their late afternoon prayer. Being devout Muslims, this was the third of five Salats for the day and to aid Zakaria’s recovery, they prayed to Allah and were counselled by the Imam.
Stigmatised by a cultural shame of mental health, a distrust of modern medicine and a belief that their faith can conquer all, they did what they thought was right. But paranoid schizophrenia doesn’t adhere to the seven pillars of Islam, it barely complies to the laws of medical science and when psychiatric counselling is left at the patient’s discretion, it’s as good as useless, especially when the only voices he could trust were the ones inside his head. (Voices – “don’t listen to them”, “they’re spies”, “it’s not a drug, it’s a bug”, “they talking about you”, “they’re out to get you”, “to harm you”, “to kill you”.
Somewhere in the Mosque, a telephone rang (as it had many times before), but gripped in a paranoia that everyone was conspiring to kill him, Zakaria panicked, ran and - moments later - he had vanished.
That night, fearing for his life, Zakaria couldn’t remember where he ran, who he saw, or what he did.
Terrified that his mobile phone was bugged, he threw it into a bush. Fearing that the plain white robe he had worn to the mosque was poisoned, he stripped down to a white t-shirt, black tracksuit trousers and a pair of trainers. And as the people were spies, their eyes were cameras and their spit cast cruel spells upon him - as The Devil closed in - to protect himself, he stole an eight-inch kitchen knife.
Zakaria was alone and terrified. Security footage briefly captured the boy wandering aimlessly, but his movements were confused and chaotic. Everyone was a threat and a danger, and although he fled as the demons chased him, he was unaware that they weren’t behind him, but inside him.
Somehow, maybe as an automatic impulse to seek a safe place, he ended up at the National Hospital for Neurology on Queen Square, where his illness was first diagnosed. But as a non-emergency service, it was shut. So, unsure what do to, the lost and frightened boy wandered the dark foreboding city - with a voice in his head, a demon on his back and a knife in his hand - one street from Russell Square.
At 10:27pm, as the theatres emptied, the restaurants refilled and the pubs readied for last orders, entirely by chance six strangers converged on Russell Square. They were all of different ages and they were all from different places; they were just six people chosen at random who were enjoying life. They had never met before, but across the next six minutes, their lives would be fatally intertwined.
They were 67-year-old Bernard Hepplewhite, a conservation volunteer from Kent who’d been to the theatre with a friend. 23-year-old Lillie Sellentin, an Australian primary school teacher who was yards from her hotel. 64-year-old Darlene Horton, a retired special-needs teacher who had enjoyed a final meal with her husband before their flight back to Florida, as well as 59-year-old US national Martin Hoenisch, 40-year-old Australian David Imber and 18-year-old Israeli Yovel Lewkowski.
Only Zakaria wouldn’t see them as people, as in his eyes, every one of them was a demon.
As the baby-faced boy weaved about the busy pavement, to his first victim – Bernard – Zakaria didn’t look like a threat, as the small cherubic lad skipped along silently, swinging his arms like he was playing in a park. As the boy banged into him, Bernard uttered an “ouch”, only then did he realise he hadn’t been punched in the stomach, he had been stabbed. And as Zakaria joyously skipped on, grinning wildly - after years of terror - the petrified boy had finally slayed his first beast. (dying demonic growl)
Yards behind him, it all happened so fast that – before Bernard even knew he was bleeding – as the emotionless prancing lad approached his next victim, Lillie Sellentin felt a sharp pain in the right of her ribs, as with no shouts of triumph and no cries of relief through his gritted teeth, Zakaria skipped on silently, as a second beast was slain (dying growl).
From out-of-nowhere, screams began, someone shouted “he’s got a knife”, and although two people lay bleeding, as this wasn’t a TV fiction but a reality in life, no-one was quite sure what was happening.
As Zakaria darted over the road, approaching a couple silently from behind, with a single fast blade he stabbed Darlene Horton in the back. Unaware of her injuries, her husband gave chase, only for the small-framed lady to slump against the garden gates, as an odd dark pattern formed down her back.
By now, everyone was watching, people were screaming and as distant sirens grew closer, with a seizure of flashing blue-lights illuminating the entire square as the patrol cars of armed officers flooded the streets, Zakaria ploughed on, as a third beast was down and dying. (dying growl)
In quick succession - as Zakaria ran past the Imperial Hotel and dashed up Russell Square towards Bedford Place – he stabbed three more innocents; Martin Hoenisch in the armpit (growl), David Imber in the chest (growl) and Yovel Lewkowski in the right arm (growl). But as the screams echoed, the sirens wailed and the people scattered, suddenly Zakaria was all alone, with no more beasts to slay.
Within minutes of the attack having begun, armed officers had Tazered, subdued and arrested Zakaria. Six people were injured, two seriously and – having been stabbed in the lung and the heart – Darlene Horton was later pronounced dead. But for once, the demons in Zakaria’s head had ceased.
(Distortion/Short) “At 10:33pm, Police responded to reports of a stabbing in Russell Square, just yards from the 7/7 tube bombing…”, “…we can confirm that one woman is dead and several are critically injured…”, “…eye-witnesses said the killer was grinning…”, “…he was skipping…”, “…in a frenzied knife attack…”, “…armed Police Tazered a young black man…”, “…an Asian male …”, “….described as either of Iraqi or Somali descent…”, “… Police are investigating links to terrorism and radicalisation…”, “…once again, we ask the question, how safe (the people) are we in our own city?” (End)
As happens during any moments of panic, misinformation had spread in those crucial few minutes, as some eye-witnesses claimed he had shouted “Allah, Allah”, where-as others said he was silent, and although we may all say that we’re not inherently biased, if a white person goes on a killing-spree we usually call it a mass-murder, but if the perpetrator is dark-skinned, often we assume it’s terrorism.
To quash any rumours by the trashy tabloids (who – by that point - were too distracted by the sexy Instagram photos of 18-year-old Yovel Lewkowski in a skimpy bikini to bother to report the truth), the Met’ Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe said: “Mental health remains a substantial focus for our investigation” and reiterated they were “keeping an open mind as to the motive”.
Zakaria Bulhan was arrested, charged and having been sectioned under the mental health act, he was sent to Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison where he was finally diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.
On 7th February 2017, Zakaria Bulhan was tried at the Old Bailey, and although he had no memory of the attack, he pleaded guilty to one count of manslaughter by diminished responsibility and five counts of wounding with the intent to cause grievous bodily harm - which should warrant a life sentence - but as it was universally accepted by the defence and the prosecution that he had suffered a psychotic episode, was detained at Broadmoor, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
One person was dead, five people were injured and a young boy’s life was destroyed forever. Had he got the help he needed, had we seen the warning signs and had (not just his culture, but ours) not been blighted by a stigma surrounding mental illness, then a good boy who was polite, shy and decent would be living a good life today. And although we are all terrified by the spectre of terrorism, often the biggest demons we all need to fight aren’t on the outside, but are the ones inside our minds.
OUTRO: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for listening to Murder Mile.
After the break, I shall be discretely slurping a tea, crinkling a cake wrapper (but not actually eating it), droning on endlessly about something or other, and then I shall press stop. Thank God.
Before that, a big thank you to my new Patreon supporters who are Bernard Airlie and Steven Walker, I thank you. Plus a thank you for all the new five-star reviews you’ve been leaving on your favourite podcast app. They’re very much appreciated and really do mean a lot to me.
Murder Mile was researched, written & performed by myself, with the main musical themes written and performed by Erik Stein & Jon Boux of Cult With No Name.
Thank you for listening and sleep well.
Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a writer, crime historian, podcaster and tour-guide who runs Murder Mile Walks, a guided tour of Soho’s most notorious murder cases, hailed as “one of the top ten curious, quirky, unusual and different things to do in London”, nominated "one of the best true-crime podcasts at the British Podcast Awards 2018", one of The Telegraph's top five true-crime podcasts and featuring 12 murderers, including 3 serial killers, across 15 locations, totaling 50 deaths, over just a one mile walk
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Michael J Buchanan-Dunne is a crime writer, podcaster & tour guide of Murder Mile Walks, hailed as one of the best "quirky curious & unusual things to do in London".
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