London nail bombings gripped the capital in fear for 13 days and left three dead

It began with a deafening explosion at 5.25pm which ripped through Brixton’s busy market, sending thousands of nails flying in all directions, 20 years ago this week.

Over the next 13 days London would be gripped with fear by the deadliest far-right atrocity in British history.

Over three consecutive weekends bombs were detonated in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho, targeting the capital’s gay, black and Bangladeshi communities.

The devices were filled with up to 1,500 nails and placed in nondescript black bags.

In total, three people were killed – including 27-year-old Andrea Dykes, who was four months pregnant – and 140 people were injured, four of whom lost limbs.

Three days after the third, and most devastating, bombing, outside a gay pub in Soho, anti-terror police charged 22-year-old David Copeland, a neo-Nazi militant and former BNP member, with murder.

He told police he wanted the bombings to “set fire to the country and stir up a racial war”.

Finally, Londoners could go about their lives again after three terrifying weeks living in constant fear of the next attack.

The first bomb, outside an Iceland supermarket, went off without warning on April 17, 1999, in the middle of hundreds of Saturday shoppers , including families with children.

Traders had become suspicious of the holdall containing the device and moved it away from the centre of the market but as police responded to their calls it detonated.

The explosion blew out window of shops and a passing bus, while shoppers were knocked down by the force of the blast.

No one was killed but several victims, including a toddler, were seriously injured.

Witnesses described people “with part of their faces blown off” and missing fingers.

One of the survivors, Rachel Manley, 36, was walking past Iceland at the moment of the explosion.

She told the Independent it was “like a slow-motion film happening right in front of my eyes. 

“I remember the windows blowing out of all of the shops.

"It all happened really quickly, but immediately after the deafening noise, everything just seemed to stop and this deathly silence took over. 

The fact that the bomber had targeted Brixton, long home to a large black population, suggested there was a racial motive to the attack.

And within days it was confirmed as London’s Bangladeshi community in east London began to receive letters and phone calls warning them: “You are next”.

Exactly a week after the first explosion, a second bomb denoted in Brick Lane.

It had been left on nearby Hanbury Street but was picked up by a member of the public, who tried to take it to a closed police station before it exploded in his boot.

The car was blown apart in the blast and the surrounding area set on fire, as six people were hit by flying glass and shrapnel. 

Later that day, the police received their first tip-off when “a 999 call was made from New Malden, southwest London, claiming neo-Nazi terrorist organisation Combat 18 was responsible.

After two bombings on consecutive Saturdays, police were certain that the bomber would strike a third time, but had no idea where.

The final bomb hit the Admiral Duncan pub in Soho on April 30, a Friday evening, as people gathered in the heart of London’s LGBT district for the start of a bank holiday weekend.

The bomber had obviously honed his technique, because this one proved deadly.

Two people died at the scene, including 27-year old Andrea Dykes, who was four months' pregnant. Another, John Light, who had been best man at her recent wedding, died later in hospital.

Four survivors had to have limbs amputated.

Mark Munday, 31, who was injured in the attack, said: “It was horrific. It didn't sound how I would have expected a bomb to sound. I felt the impact rather than heard it. 

“So much of what I saw that day is very hard to compute or comprehend. The mangled limbs and stuff just made no sense.

"It was like in a cartoon when things explode and people's clothes get ripped and shredded. 

“It looked ridiculous. A lot of people barely had any clothes on, because the blast had just blown them all off.

"I am pretty sure that a man flew out through the window of the pub and across the pavement right in front of us.”

With London gripped with fear, detectives acted quickly, studying reams of CCTV footage from each attack.

On May 2, 1999, 23-year-old electrician Copeland was arrested in his home in Cove, Hampshire, where he immediately admitted the bombings.

In his bedroom, which was covered in Nazi flags and newspaper clippings on explosions, officers found the ingredients ready for his fourth bomb.

When asked why he had targeted ethnic minorities, he reportedly said: “Because I don’t like them, I want them out of this country, I believe in the master race”.

He said he planned to continue bombing ethnic minority communities, with Southall in west London marked as his next target.

During his trial, it emerged that Copeland considered himself a Nazi and believed in a master race, while psychiatrists diagnosed him as having paranoid schizophrenia.

He was found guilty of three counts of murder and planting the homemade explosive devices and received six life sentences, which he is serving at Broadmoor Hospital.

In 2015, his sentence was lengthened after he attacked an inmate at HMP Belmarsh with a concealed razor blade inside a toothbrush.

Copeland will not now be eligible for release until he is in his mid-70s, when the risk he may still pose to the public will be assessed by the Parole Board.

Twenty years after the 13 days which awoke London to the dangers of far-right extremism, Met police commander Mark McEwan vowed “never be complacent in dealing with extremism”.

He said: “Two decades have passed since these abhorrent attacks, which left an indelible mark on London.

“Our thoughts are with everyone affected – those who lost their lives, their family and loved ones, and all of the people who survived the attacks and continue to live with the physical and psychological trauma of what happened.

“The anniversary of these atrocities serves as a reminder that we can never be complacent in dealing with extremism and people who harbour radical views based on racial, religious and other forms of prejudice.”

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