November 29 2019 was my first day out of prison in 14 and a half years. As if to show me what I’d been missing, the sky was a fierce blue and the sun shone brightly across London. The city was buzzing. I had Learning Together, a Cambridge University education programme for prisoners, to thank for my temporary freedom.
I had been invited to a conference to celebrate its fifth anniversary at Fishmongers’ Hall, by London Bridge. While my ‘plus one’ was my escorting officer Adam, it still felt incredible to be outside and in the real world.
Jack Merritt, 25, the Cambridge graduate who had become my mentor in what I hoped would be my final stretch in prison, greeted me with a hug. He had a posh accent and a friendly smile: he was super-smart and could have got a job anywhere, but he believed lifers like me had potential and was dedicated to helping us.
Fishmongers’ Hall was like a museum. I noticed a pair of narwhal tusks fastened to a wall, the relics of bygone fishing trips to the frozen North.
Mid-morning, we stopped for a break. In the next session, I was to read a question to a panel of guests. I was anxious, but excited. Almost immediately, a woman’s high-pitched screams came from below. A Learning Together volunteer rushed in. ‘It’s Usman,’ she said, frantically dialling a number on her phone. I jumped up and made my way to the door.
In the next session, I was to read a question to a panel of guests. I was anxious, but excited. Almost immediately, a woman’s high-pitched screams came from below
It felt like time had slowed down. My blood was loaded with adrenaline. As we reached London Bridge, Usman turned and began swinging his knives. Just grab him, I told myself, writes STEVE GALLANT (pictured)
I knew I had to slow him. The only weapon to hand was a narwhal tusk. Usman came swinging his knives towards me. I hit him hard – but it seemed to have little effect
At the bottom of the stairs, a young woman was sprawled on the floor with blood coming from her neck. Another girl, lying in the foetal position, had a large pool of blood forming beneath her.
Suddenly, I was face-to-face with Usman Khan, a former prisoner and fellow Learning Together guest. He had a razor-sharp, eight-inch blade taped to each wrist and an explosive belt around his body – though it later proved to be fake.
I knew I had to slow him. The only weapon to hand was a narwhal tusk. Usman came swinging his knives towards me. I hit him hard – but it seemed to have little effect.
I struck out again, missing by a whisker. His knives came close and then: Crunch! I hit him hard across the shoulder, snapping the tusk. He burst into the street, heading to London Bridge. I went after him. The streets were busy. ‘Get back!’ I shouted. ‘It’s a terrorist!’
Usman turned to face me. I struck him again with the broken tusk but somehow he managed to grab it and rip it from my hands. I backed off as he threw it at me.
It felt like time had slowed down. My blood was loaded with adrenaline. As we reached London Bridge, Usman turned and began swinging his knives. Just grab him, I told myself. Take him to the ground. I made a lunge for his jacket with both hands and we went down.
Somehow, Usman managed to get back to his feet. In the confusion that followed a gap opened, offering me an unobstructed view of his face. I punched him hard in the jaw. Crack! And another: Crack!
Ministry of Justice worker Darryn Frost took the other narwhal tusk to fight Usman. Unmarked police cars then screeched to a halt and within seconds officers were leaping over the barriers with guns drawn. Usman was shot twice but not before he’d fatally stabbed Jack and fellow Cambridge graduate Saskia Jones, 23. To my surprise, he attempted to climb to his feet.
Usman was hit by a Taser, then shot for a third time. He sank to the floor and remained there.
As I walked away, a whirlwind of thoughts went round my head as my adrenaline began to come down from its intoxicating peak. Did that really just happen?
My previous act of violence had cost someone their life, shattered many others in the process and landed me a murder conviction in 2005, a life sentence.
Shocked and confused, yet struck by a sudden moment of clarity, I turned to the chap with the narwhal tusk and said, ‘That was my first act of violence in 14 and a half years.’ I’d broken my vow.
When I arrived at HMP Frankland, a Category A prison in County Durham, to begin my sentence, it held some of the most dangerous men in the country. And now, me. I had killed a man after he attacked my girlfriend, Jayne.
He and some mates had forced their way into her flat and smashed up her sound system. When Jayne tried to stop them, they hit her on the head with a claw hammer, then threatened to return and kill her.
I found out later they had done this because the man’s girlfriend thought Jayne was playing her music too loudly. Jayne pleaded with me not to retaliate, but I was too angry to listen. Violence had been present throughout my youth as a bullied, skinny child on a council estate in Hull. By 17 I’d finished my education at a school for naughty kids, left with no qualifications and had convictions for fighting and petty offences, culminating in an eight-month jail sentence.
That hindered my job prospects and prevented me from joining the Army. I meant to hurt the man who hurt Jayne, not kill him, but my attack spun out of control, earning me a murder conviction, carrying a life sentence with a minimum tariff of 17 years. I took a long look at my life and I didn’t like what I saw.
Where had violence got me? It had cost me my freedom and, although she had spent a year faithfully visiting me, ultimately it also cost me the most important thing in my life – Jayne had told me she couldn’t go on. It was over. Something had to change. I vowed never to use violence again.
I hit the gym, stopped smoking and resisted friendly offers of hooch (made from fermented fruit). I quit these vices overnight, no withdrawal symptoms.
I realised it wasn’t the substances I’d been addicted to – it was the lifestyle. Learning to write became an obsession. During my years in prison I went on study for GCSEs, then A-level philosophy and a degree in business management.
Usman Khan (pictured) had been planning attacks on the Stock Exchange, Parliament and the US Embassy and was one of scores of Islamic terrorists who came into the prison system while I was inside
Usman Khan had been planning attacks on the Stock Exchange, Parliament and the US Embassy and was one of scores of Islamic terrorists who came into the prison system while I was inside. There was concern on high that extremism would lead to people being radicalised in prison. I can tell you that fear was well-founded. My perception of Islamic terrorists at the time was of disenfranchised street kids with low IQs who were easily led and manipulated.
Dhiren Barot put that stereotype to bed. He was serving 40 years for plotting terror attacks in the UK and US. Although he had an air of arrogance, he was quiet, well-kept and highly intelligent. He became an agent for Al-Qaeda. and his conviction was considered one of the most significant since 9/11. To many of his ‘brothers’ filtering into the system he was revered. So when he was attacked, allegedly by Gary Moody and an associate, with a pan of boiling cooking oil poured over his head, it caught the attention of the 20 Al-Qaeda sympathisers being held at Frankland.
One of those was Omar Khyam, serving 20 years for plotting to explode a fertiliser bomb in London. At just over 5ft, skinny and quiet, he blended into the background. So at first no one noticed when, with a pan of hot oil in his hand, he strolled from the kitchen towards a group of white prisoners chatting away at a table.
One of these was Malcolm Cruddas, an armed robber due to be released. He didn’t notice Khyam walk up behind him and pour the entire contents over his head.
There was now a battle for wing control. Those who had stoked the fire had created deadly enemies. It didn’t matter to the terrorists, as they had committed themselves to a violent cause, and some were only alive because their bombs had failed to detonate. Nor did it matter to the hardened gang members and individuals (on both sides), who made a life out of reputational violence.
When you spend years under the same roof as terrorists, you engage in conversation in a dinner queue or the gym and can learn all sorts.
Some are incredibly good communicators and charismatic. They know their subject very well, which typically involves resentment of the British state.
I would often see a newly arrived prisoner fall under the wing of an extremist or gang member. Groomers, often formidable alpha males, know that when a new arrival enters Frankland, they are likely to be scared, directionless, impressionable and possibly resentful towards the justice system.
The target is treated with kindness, offered nice food and brought into a welcoming circle of friends. At a moment of loneliness and despair, that’s comforting.
Next, they are exposed to a set of values that set them apart from the prison population. At a time when you are confused about your life, that’s intriguing and enlightening.
Then they are offered a reason for their existence, reinforced with literature and an ideology. Now that’s a sense of purpose with meaning. And anyone who converts to Islam receives an Arabic name – a new identity to separate them from their culture, their past and, possibly, their family.
Once that change in demeanour is picked up by prisoners who don’t share the same views, the new guy is perceived as a threat. If only subtly at first, the others behave differently to the convert, which reinforces the guidance from his groomers: don’t trust anyone but us.
Clued-up extremists know the right to religious practice makes it harder for the authorities to intervene when they groom other prisoners and disseminate their ideology, behaviours they can easily pass off as sharing one’s faith.
Moments before the screaming started at Fishmongers’ Hall, I’d had my photo taken with Jack Merritt, who came into my life when I moved to Warren Hill jail in Suffolk in 2016
Allowing terrorists and extremists to associate with other prisoners makes grooming very difficult to prevent. But it is not half as difficult to spot. Going from being clean shaven and wearing a Nike tracksuit to suddenly wearing a kameez and sporting a long beard is one possible sign.
Moments before the screaming started at Fishmongers’ Hall, I’d had my photo taken with Jack Merritt, who came into my life when I moved to Warren Hill jail in Suffolk in 2016. Being in a progressive prison and learning with Jack and colleagues was a great education. It wasn’t just to do with academic work: their values of community and kindness were passed on to us, even in the smallest ways.
Jack always turned up for lectures with a bag full of M&S food. We hadn’t had food like this for years: it was like tasting freedom.
As I ran back into Fishmongers’ Hall I didn’t see Jack. I asked Simon, one of Learning Together’s PhD students if Jack was OK.
He shook his head. ‘What are you saying, you haven’t seen him, or have you? Is he hurt?’ He continued to shake his head, unable to speak.
A couple of metres away the woman who’d been stabbed remained motionless as paramedics removed the defibrillator pads and shook their heads. Her name was Saskia Jones, a kind-hearted young woman with a bright future.
Next day, I remained in my cell. I learned that the other woman who had been stabbed multiple times had survived, just.
But tragically Jack – the young man who had helped me to believe a good life could lie beyond prison and who cared more for Usman’s future than any of his so-called brothers – was dead.
Steve Gallant was released from prison under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in August 2021. He was awarded the Queen’s Medal for Gallantry for his actions during the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall.
lAdapted from The Road To London Bridge by Steve Gallant (Seven Dials, £8.99) to be published on October 26. © 2023 Steve Gallant. To order a copy (P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-12605767/STEVE-GALLANT-day-outside-prison-14-years-didnt-expect-taking-terrorist-narwhal-tusk-centre-2019-London-Bridge-atrocity.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 STEVE GALLANT: It was my first day outside prison in 14 years – I didn’t expect to be 2059558taking down a terrorist… with a narwhal tusk, at the centre of the 2019 London Bridge atrocity