Six months on, The Fence explores the impermanence of scandal around an abortive terrorist tragedy in Liverpool.
Rutland Avenue must be the world’s most bourgeois bomb factory. The road lies in polite, respectable south Liverpool, just around the corner from the ever-gentrifying Smithdown Road where graduates of all nationalities tend to begin their love affair with the city. Privet hedges, porches cleanly swept – each with Edwardian stained glass detailing, a Betjemanesque fantasia in red brick.
It was here that Emad al-Swealmeen, alias Enzo Almeni (and, it is presumed, undisclosed others), built the bomb which detonated in the back of a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital on Remembrance Day 2021, having first been aiming to disrupt a memorial service at the Anglican Cathedral. Were it not for the heroics of the cabbie who locked him in the car, almost at his own expense, there is no telling the scale of what could have followed. The event joined the long playbook of misconceptions about Merseyside found in the south, and in particular in London. Al-Swealmeen’s fate is to be filed somewhere under the ‘Militant Tendency’, but above Peter Sissons in the popular ‘Things to Know About Liverpool’ Filofax.
One truth about Liverpool is that it loves a story. Narrative, especially a personal one, is all. The one that has grown up about al-Swealmeen is an interesting one, spun out and added to even now, half a year after the failed bombing. It has everything: religion, the naivety of youth, the folly of old age, death, expectant mothers, poppies and an ordinary hero. And yet, in Liverpool, on the ground, it begins to fall apart.
When the profile of Emad al-Swealmeen began to form – or, be formed – in the wake of the attack, the contradictions took centre stage. Here was an individual who had claimed to have fled his native Syria, but had arrived with a legitimate Jordanian passport, who was later found to have been Iraqi. He had thrown himself into the Church of England upon arrival and had, in turn, been welcomed with open arms, benefiting from the pastoral care that the church provides, often in the absence of any state assistance. A retired army lieutenant and his wife took al-Swealmeen in, where he was – save for a paranoid moment or two – the perfect houseguest and an eager parishioner in the making. He loved racing cars and would regularly take himself to a go-kart track just outside of the city centre – Enzo, his chosen name, was a homage to Enzo Ferrari. He was also, by all accounts, a keen cook and had enrolled in a cake-decorating course at a local college as late as 2019. This was the portrait of the man who had plotted to enact unimaginable cruelty, first on the church that had once sought to deliver him to Christ, and then on a hospital that, to so many in the city, symbolises joy, renewal and potential.
The narrative that first evolved was of credulous churchy people, duped by a terrorist’s claim to be wanting to explore Christianity. The very Anglican world of bake sales and sweet old ladies collided with hate-preaching and suspiciously large orders of bleach. Yet the church has been assiduous, professional even, in its PR spiel around the event and, specifically, around its relations with the newly arrived would-be converts in the city and further afield. Journalists who tried to get offhand comments from well-meaning vicars found themselves directed to communications professionals. Clergy were given clear instructions on dealing with the press. The line was stuck to with a doggedness which suggests they really do believe it to be true: this was a one-off, a tragedy, and as much about mental health as politics or religion.
The Fence visited St Philemon’s in Toxteth, where al-Swealmeen had supposedly met the elder couple who briefly took him in. We came a month after the bungled attack only to find that order had very much been restored. There were posters for services, details of community projects – but no lingering air of malice. Some activity seemed to be going on amid the newly refurbished Welsh Streets nearby, but otherwise things were quiet.
Probing for thoughts and opinions was a somewhat fruitless task. More often than not, you would find yourself reminding locals that something catastrophic had nearly happened – a horror on their doorstep, brought to pass in the furtive corners of its uneasily distributed housing stock, two doors down from students and a further two from retirees. ‘Oh yeah,’ was the common refrain, ‘weird, that, wasn’t it?’
Could it be that the rush for the perfect vox pop that ensues whenever local news goes national has left Liverpudlians with little else to say on the matter? Or were the vagaries of the story – unknown provenance, unknown purpose, unknown resonance – too diffuse to have captured their imagination?
Just nearby the bomb factory is at the bottom end of Smithdown Road. A craft ale pub in a former tool shop sits between Planet Yoga and a cheesecake shop, a reminder of the area’s once-populous Jewish community. Nobody there, or in any other business or bar, seemed particularly interested in the al-Swealmeen case. All it will mean, it was observed there, is that one taxi driver will never have to buy a pint in Liverpool ever again. The city of story had already succeeded in relegating this unhappy moment to the status of footnote.
The Rev’d Canon Dr Crispin Pailing, chair of the city’s ecumenical interfaith meetings, played a key role in coordinating the religious community’s response to the al-Swealmeen attack, cohering a united front in those delicate few days where religious backlash is all but expected. ‘It was a difficult time for the communities, because of the speculation involved,’ Dr Pailing confides, ‘but it was, in a sense, a positive time, as we were able to stand together as faith communities, to show the city and the country that these events could not divide us.’ Thankfully, dissent in the aftermath of the bombing was relatively minor, limited seemingly to the lunkheaded hectoring of bedsit skinheads towards a pizza shop in Maghull that they had baselessly traduced as al-Swealmeen’s place of work.
Of course, the plot’s failure is part of the success in this regard. There can be no denying that there was a risk, a genuine threat, that large numbers of people would have died in abominable circumstances. Either those paying their respects at the cathedral or mothers and families at the Women’s Hospital would have been injured, scarred mentally or killed. Had the plan gone ahead, it would undoubtedly now loom large in the consciousness of the city and the nation.
That’s a story that can be told, which parts of the press will continue to try and tell, but on the ground, it feels distant, odd, even wrong. We don’t even truly know who, or where, the intended target was. Like so many aspects of the story, it will always be conjecture, and so will never quite capture the emotions or imaginations in the same way.
The passing of time, and the official verdicts of the state in its medical, judicial and administrative guises, have yielded little more of note about Emad al-Swealmeen – nothing to shift the existing narratives or elucidate the situation further. He had been rejected for asylum three times; diagnosed with depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder; had seemingly reconverted to Islam during the during the dour citywide lockdown of November 2020; and built his bomb from the new year onwards, detonating it accidentally in the back of a black Ford Galaxy, killing only himself. Any internal torment that al-Swealmeen may have battled, between faith and citizenry and community and trauma, matters little when the facts are what they are, and the ending is what we know it to be.
It was, as the official line stated, a one-off, a tragedy, and as much about mental health as about politics or religion. That, in many ways, is a better story, especially if it has the benefit of being closer to the truth – and for as much as we can ever learn about these situations, it will be this story which is likely to persist. Liverpool is a city which knows its stories, and in Liverpool, the better story will always win.