5 JULY 2015
Ten years ago, Sajda Mughal was on a Tube train that was blown up by one of the four 7/7 terrorists. Having survived the carnage wrought by men of her own religion, she now works tirelessly to save young people from being drawn into extremism. By Jessica Salter, Sunday 5 July 2015
Earlier this year a Muslim mother visited Sajda Mughal’s offices in north London and thanked her for helping to stop her 15-year-old son from going to Syria, potentially to join Isil. “He had been looking at some websites that worried her, and she was able to sit him down and say, ‘I understand you’re frustrated, but this is not the way we do things here,’” Mughal says.
He is not the only vulnerable teenager whom Mughal has prevented from being radicalised. As part of a unique initiative, she runs courses for predominantly Muslim mothers on how to spot signs of extremism in their children, teaching them internet skills, how to search web histories and which websites to look out for. In the two years the project has been running, Mughal has helped 200 mothers, and in February she was awarded an OBE by the Prince of Wales.
Mughal’s own life has been irrevocably shaped by terrorism. On 7 July 2005, then aged 22, she was on the same Tube train as Germaine Lindsay, who blew himself up, killing 26 people as well as injuring 340 more. As a result of all four attacks in the London bombings that day, 52 innocent people died and more than 770 were injured.
Sajda at the time of her ordeal
Ten years on, Mughal still gets flashbacks. On that day she had left her mother’s house in north London slightly late to get to the investment bank where she worked in recruitment. Her normal station, Wood Green, was shut, so she got on a Piccadilly Line train later than usual at Turnpike Lane, heading for Holborn.
“Usually I would sit in the front carriage, but it was too busy to get down to that end of the platform, so I just jumped on in the middle,” she says.
That decision saved her life. “Had I been in the front carriage, I probably wouldn’t be here,” she says, “because Germaine Lindsay was in that carriage.” Seconds after the train left King’s Cross station, at about 8.50am, there was a “massive explosion”. Lindsay had detonated his bomb.
“Instantly, the lights went out and the emergency lights came on. A couple of seconds later black smoke started coming through the ventilation system. People were screaming and started to bang on the doors. There was someone with an umbrella trying to smash the window, but it wouldn’t break.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, we’ve derailed. There’s another train a minute behind us, it doesn’t know we’ve stopped and it’s going to hit us and we’re going to burn to death.’
“Once I got that thought of death in my mind, I couldn’t get it out and I couldn’t move. While everyone else was banging and screaming, I sat perfectly still in my seat, waiting for it to happen. I thought I was going to die.”
She was trapped 70ft below ground and the smoke became so intense that she had to wrap her suit jacket around her face. After about 45 minutes (rescue workers had been worried the tunnel might collapse), she heard a man’s voice.
“It was very distant, but he said, ‘It’s the police, we’re coming to get you.’ I felt the greatest sense of relief I’d ever felt in my life. I started to think we might get out of this alive.”
The survivors were led along the tracks to King’s Cross station, where emergency services were already treating the very badly injured.
“When we came out of the station I felt lots of people staring at us,” she says. “I saw a McDonald’s and I ran over. I wanted to get away from everything and everyone.”
She went into the lavatory and was horrified when she saw her reflection in the mirror. “I was covered in black – my face and hands were completely black, it was all under my nails, and my hair was full of soot.”
She bought herself a cup of tea “to try to calm down”. News reports on the television were saying that there had been a derailment. “I tried to call my family, but all the [mobile phone] networks were down.”
The transport systems were closed too. “Someone told me I’d have to walk. I eventually got home at about a quarter to two in the afternoon. I called my mum and my boyfriend; they thought I was dead. My mum’s reaction was to shout down the phone at me, ‘Where have you been?’ – her friends told me later she was hysterical. And then I pulled all the curtains closed and sat curled up on the sofa until they came around.”
What emerged later was this: at 7.25am, four men, each with a large rucksack containing about 10kg of homemade explosives, had caught a train from Luton to London King’s Cross. CCTV footage showed them hugging and heading off in different directions at 8.30am.
At 8.50am, Shehzad Tanweer detonated the first device on the Circle Line between Liverpool Street and Aldgate, killing seven innocent victims; Mohammad Sidique Khan set off his bomb at Edgware Road, killing six, and the third device was detonated by Germaine Lindsay on Mughal’s Piccadilly Line train, claiming 26 lives.
The fourth bomber, Hasib Hussain, was seen on CCTV at 8.55am in Euston Road. He tried to ring the other three, but got no reply. He bought a nine-volt battery at WH Smith in King’s Cross station, and at 9.47am, detonated his bomb on the number 30 bus at Tavistock Square, killing a final 13 people, as well as himself.
That evening, Mughal started to hear news reports, first that it was a bombing and that the four men had carried out the attack in the name of Islam. For Mughal, a Muslim herself, this was devastating.
“It really affected me, having been down there and thinking I was going to die, then finding out it was done by men from my religion. Islam states if you take one innocent life it’s as if you’ve killed the whole of humanity – they had gone completely against Islam.”
She escaped injury, but took six months off work to have counselling to deal with flashbacks – “I was seeing blood and hearing screams” – and constant nightmares. She still suffers from both.
Once back at the office (“I had to re-route my journey so that I avoided the Tube”) she threw herself into work and was promoted to the head of her department. “But I couldn’t shake the questions I had. I was waking up every day thinking that 7/7 should never have happened. I kept asking myself, what could have been done to prevent those men doing that?”
Mughal’s life changed irrevocably after the attacks. Having not previously considered marriage and children until “my mid-30s”, she says that “being down there and thinking I was going to die without having done that changed everything”.
She married her boyfriend, Ahmed, in 2007, had her first daughter in 2010 and a second in 2013. She also left her job in the corporate world and started working on counter-terrorism projects at the JAN Trust, a women’s community centre in north London set up in 1989 by her mother, Rafaat.
Today, Mughal’s five-year-old’s drawings line the wall behind her desk, next to a cot for her two-year-old, who comes to work with her. “Had I not gone through my experience, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today,” she says.
She adds that she owes her parents for her drive. Having fled Idi Amin’s dictatorship in Uganda with Mughal’s two older brothers, the family lived in Kenya, where Mughal was born, before moving to Haringey, north London, when Mughal was a year old.
“My parents had been very wealthy in Uganda, but they had to leave it all. When they arrived here, they were penniless. But I saw them working hard their whole lives, and they instilled that work ethic in us.”
Now Mughal works tirelessly at the charity – despite receiving regular death threats from people she calls Islamophobes – from 9.30am to 7pm, often staying up until as late as 3am. “There’s always a funding proposal to write,” she says, wryly.
It can be gruelling and distressing work. After the attacks she began researching extremist material online. “It was horrible. Some of the videos are disgusting. But I thought it was important to know what was out there.” She started speaking in schools, where some children would tell her they had sympathy with the bombers.
“I would tell them about my experience of 7/7 and tell them to imagine it was their mother, or sister, or friend down there. It’s important to have a face-to-face dialogue with children and provide counter-arguments, not push them online to find answers.”
The JAN Trust had run a successful campaign educating mothers about gun and knife crime, and Mughal thought the same methods could be used to combat extremism. “I grew up in the kind of household where my mother would know if there was something wrong with me. So where better than to start with the person who knows that child the best?”
Keen to understand the broader picture, in 2011 the JAN Trust surveyed 350 Muslim mothers living in London. They found that 93 per cent of the mothers lacked basic IT skills “such as being able to turn on the computer”, and 92 per cent did not know what online radicalisation was.
“They were telling us, ‘We want to know, but we need assistance.’”
When Mughal spoke to a packed hall of mothers at the end of last year, still only four per cent of them knew about Isil. “That is why we need to keep working, to improve education and help save our children,” she says.
The dangers to British teenagers are very real. Last week Europol announced it was launching a web unit to target the key figures who produce 100,000 tweets a day from accounts linked to Isil.
The group particularly tries to recruit foreign fighters, such as 17-year-old Talha Asmal from Dewsbury, who last month was believed to have become Britain’s youngest suicide bomber after he detonated a car full of explosives in Iraq. His devastated family said he was the victim of “calculated grooming” online.
His death followed the news in February that three 15- and 16-year-old girls from east London had run away from home to become Isil brides. Last month, an anonymous Syrian blogger reported that the disillusioned young women were now on the run from their new husbands.
“No mother wants to lose their child or for them to potentially end up dead in a place where they can’t even visit the grave,” Mughal says.
Through the charity’s Web Guardians programme, she tells her women that as well as checking what their children are doing on the internet (something all parents are worried about), they should also “listen out for one or two extremist views”.
She then provides the mothers with a counter-narrative. “They can say to their children, ‘Why don’t you write to your MP or join this legitimate protest or give money to this charity?’”
She feels strongly that this is the way to beat terrorism. “If someone had been listening out for Germaine Lindsay, they might have noticed some signs. They might have been able to prevent 7/7.”
Ten years on, when asked if she ever thinks about Lindsay, she pauses.
“I feel sadness that he, as a 19-year-old, took his own life and others with it,” she says. “And I feel particular sadness for his mother. To lose him in such a destructive manner…” She trails off, her eyes filled with tears.