A former EDL member who stormed a mosque in Essex in a revenge attack for the murder of British soldier, Lee Rigby in Woolwich says he’s sorry.
Geoff Ryan, 44, embraced the Imam of Braintree Mosque and said: “I’m sorry.”
Last year Mr Ryan entered Al Falah Centre armed with knives and smoke grenades, and even threatened to kill a worshipper.
After serving half of his nine-month jail sentence, the builder and former member of the English Defence League (EDL) spent four hours discussing religion, extremism, politics and the events that took place in Woolwich in May 2013 with leaders of the Muslim community, and now insists on helping change negative perceptions of Islam.
Mr Ryan said to four local Muslims that visited his home: “I’m sorry for what I did,” after a chance encounter at HMP Chelmsford with Imam Kashif Ahmad, who volunteers at the prison.
“I think you’ve been really decent about this whole thing and I thank you for coming round,” added Mr Ryan, who had initially refused to meet at the mosque in Silks Way, saying: “After what I did I don’t have a right to set foot in your mosque.
“It shows the mark of the four of you that you’re prepared to come and speak to me.
“What I did was wrong, but I must stress people cannot do that to our soldiers – that proper drove me over the edge.
“You were not to blame for that – that was collective punishment on my behalf and it was wrong, but the British people will not stand for our troops being abused either verbally or physically.
“After our soldier was killed, I sat there and thought to myself, and I’m not proud of it, but this was my thought process at the time – ‘you can get to our soldiers, I can get to you just as easily’.
“Simple as that, it’s bad, but I was that livid at what happened to our soldier.”
As media outlets printed images and aired video footage of Lee Rigby’s murder at the hands of two Muslims across the world, Mr Ryan began plotting a revenge attack on his local Muslim community.
A few hours after Mr Rigby’s death, he threw a smoke grenade through the downstairs window of the mosque forcing the only occupant, taxi driver Saruk Miah, onto the flat roof of the Al Falah prayer centre.
Ryan then yelled “******* come out, I’m going to kill you. Let’s see if Allah or God come to help you.”
Waving the knives, he then shouted: “I’ll kill you Muslims, I’ll kill you before the police come, come downstairs, come out, I’m going to cut your throat.”
Mr Miah, who was about to start evening prayers, used his mobile phone to call police, who raced to the scene to arrest Mr Ryan.
The mosque’s chairman Abdul Gaffor, Imam Kashif Ahmad and two Muslim converts Glenn Maskell and Jenny Wayne, agreed to meet at Mr Ryan’s home where they talked about the Quran.
Mr Ryan, who left the EDL because “getting drunk all the time and shouting insults doesn’t get anything done”, called on Mike Watts of Working Class Action, a campaigning group based in Birmingham, to attend the meeting.
All six members of the group pledged to “forgive and forget” and committed to an open dialogue in order to understand each other’s religion and cultures.
Abdul Gaffor, a taxi driver in Braintree, said: “We believe we should forgive, then move on, so let’s say that we’ll talk again about our concerns and move forward that way.
“We in England have so many different groups that it’s time we start breaking down barriers in the local area, then we go from there. Let’s take the labels off and bring the humanity together.
“Those people that killed another human being, there was anger on our side as well, we thought it was disgusting, and I said so myself on the radio that this was a barbaric act and the Muslims have nothing to do with this, it was those two people that did it.
“From now on we just look forward. We Muslims are sometimes in a corner and we want to come out of that corner and be friends with everybody.”
He added: “What I did was a criminal act and it won’t be repeated by me and if I ever heard that someone was going to go down that road I’d stop them. Acts of hatred and violence are not going to get anyone anywhere.
“My actions didn’t help Lee Rigby and it didn’t help his family.
“I don’t want politicians trying to speak for us and so-called Muslim spokesmen – just us, in the community, people that live side-by-side, we’re all just trying to get through life.
“And what I did was wrong, but I must stress people cannot do that to our soldiers – that proper drove me over the edge.”
“I don’t believe what I did was extreme, it was a reaction to an extreme act. It’s not about religion, what I can say is that I met four very nice people.”
On the topic of extremism and whether he considered his actions in May to be an act of terror, Mr Ryan said: “I don’t consider myself part of an extreme right-wing group or anything like that, I’m conservative in some views and quite liberal in others.”
Mr Gaffor added: “At the time we didn’t think it was terrorism, but something evil, it’s hard as it terrified people, but now that we’ve met we don’t feel this way.”
As the meeting concluded Mr Ahmed handed Mr Ryan a box of Celebrations for his nine-year-old son, and they both hugged. Mr Ryan departing from the Imam with the Islamic greeting “Asalaamu alaikum”.