London killings: ‘It’s like a war zone. How did it come to this?’

Rachid has no idea what the future holds, apart from the certainty that he’ll never visit east London’s Canning Town. “If I set foot there, I’ll get stabbed.” He has just turned 19, and two of his friends have already been murdered on the streets.

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Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

A trip to the nearest corner shop has become a daunting ordeal. “You’re constantly looking around, at the same time making sure you avoid looking at people. You don’t know what can happen. Anything can,” says the teenager, a former well-known gang affiliate who lives a seven-minute walk from Canning Town.

Reports of bloodshed ripple quickly through Newham’s gangland grapevine. On Monday, shocks reverberated through the borough after Abubakkar Jah, 18, known as Junior, was shot and stabbed to death in the middle of the afternoon near his Canning Town home. Three days earlier, a third of a mile away, another brutal afternoon murder occurred when 14-year-old Fares Maatou was stabbed in a busy street outside a pizza restaurant.

© Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer
Raheel Butt’s street gym, The Compound, is looking for an armoured personnel carrier to carry teenagers across the borough. ‘It might seem dramatic but people are too scared to travel,’ he says.

But it is the murder of Jah that sources familiar with Newham’s gangs say risks reigniting what they describe as the most violent feud in British history.


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That feud may have already begun. A man was shot in the face and left in a critical condition at 6pm on Thursday in east Newham. Metropolitan police sources said a possible link to the earlier violence was “under review”.

Speaking three days after Jah’s murder, Rachid wondered what has happened to his city. “It’s like living in a war zone. You’re free but you’re not free at the same time. You’re constantly asking yourself: how did it come to this?”

Three years have passed since the government loudly launched its first serious violence strategy. Backed with £40m of Home Office funding, the strategy hailed a “real step-change” in how the UK tackled “violent drug-dealing gangs” and their recruitment of vulnerable youngsters.

But not only do the killings continue, the gangs themselves have proliferated. Former Home Office adviser and director of the National Centre for Gang Research Simon Harding believes the taskforce has made little difference because it was obsessed with the wrong target. “It should have been focused on tackling poverty, inequality. These are the main drivers of violence.”

Instead of an innovative approach to dismantle the cycle of drug-fuelled violence, it repackaged the strategy kickstarted by Richard Nixon and his “war on drugs” 50 years ago.

In Newham, in the centre of the borough, stands a half-renovated gym called The Compound. From the outside, it looks like a military base overlooking the the “war zone” described by Rachid. Its outer wall are crowned with coils of barbed wire; entrance is by reinforced metal doors through which visitors must first holler their name.

Inside, ex-gang members or youngsters deemed at risk push weights. “This is the only place in Newham I feel safe. There’s nowhere else,” says Rachid, whose name has been changed for safety reasons. The Compound’s founder, Raheel Butt, 36, claims that at least 10 approaches for local authority funding have been ignored.

Mention of the Home Office’s taskforce draws a quizzical look from Butt. When told it was given £40m he exhales sharply. “Where did the money go?! These streets certainly haven’t seen it.”

Demand for The Compound is huge, says Butt, a former gang offender imprisoned for grievous bodily harm in his 20s. Like Rachid, he has seen friends murdered.

One obstacle preventing more from attending is the fear of travelling across Newham. Butt is looking for an armoured personnel vehicle to be repurposed to transport at-risk youngsters to and from his gym. “It might sound dramatic but people are too scared to travel,” he says.

Beneath Stratford’s gleaming skyline, a legacy of the area’s 2012 Olympic Games investment, lies a small quadrant of green. With the world’s attention long gone from this corner of Newham, Stratford Park has become a coveted spot for its drugs gangs.

Several “known faces” were operating in the park on Friday, according to an intelligence update. At 2:30pm on Friday, Met inspector Tony Douglas and nine officers from his violence suppression unit entered Stratford Park. They began scouring bushes and bins for hidden weapons. Within minutes, deal bags of cannabis worth £100 were found.

Douglas said the find had complex ramifications. He had enforced the law, but somewhere in Newham a low-level dealer – likely to be a child – was £100 down. The boy might be beaten by his elders or pushed deeper into debt bondage, making it harder to escape their gang.

Tackling violence in Newham frequently means coming into contact with children. Every month, the Met’s command unit covering Newham and neighbouring Waltham Forest refers 1,000 youngsters at risk of gang membership to local authorities. Douglas, 41, believes that intervention increasingly has to happen at primary school. “We need to reach kids by the age of nine or 10. By secondary school it’s too late.”

Others point out that austerity continues to blunt policing attempts to dismantle the gangs. The Conservatives’ cost-cutting project axed 21,000 officers in England and Wales, while in Newham they fell nearly 20% to 671 from 2010-18.

Although the government has begun to increase numbers, former Met detective superintendent Shabnam Chaudhri, who coordinated Newham’s neighbourhood teams working with deprived communities, believes the training of new officers has fallen below past standards. Although Newham and Waltham Forest’s command unit has a steadily growing 1,200 officers, Chaudhri said their training was “not as thorough”, and some police refused to engage with the community.

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People place flowers near where 14-year-old Fares Maatou was knifed to death outside a pizza restaurant. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

This, she said, had caused a communications gap between police and public to fester, and that had reduced the most precious commodity available to officers: information.

Chaudhri, who set up Hackney’s first gangs unit, said: “Intelligence is key – and the police are not getting it. Some cops will not even speak to people. Equally, members of the public are too scared or they mistrust; there is a breakdown in intelligence.”

Douglas conceded that communications with the public had been strained but were improving, saying his unit had even fostered “cordial” relations with some gang members who accepted why they were targeted.

Police are still waiting for the tip-off that may guide them to Junior Jah’s killer. On Friday, the force issued another appeal for information. Four years ago, Junior’s brother, Ahmed Jah, known as Grinna, was stabbed to death aged 21 in a shop near Monday’s killing. That murder remains unsolved.

Harding’s work identifies the concept of “street capital”, where gang members are perpetually required to prove their worth with increasingly ferocious acts of violence – acts which can silence a community.

Butt refers to the idea of “ratings” to explain brazen violence.“If they stab or hurt someone, they are more likely to get ratings, road status,” he says. An act of sickening brutality committed in a public place – ideally in front of bystanders and shared on social media – offers guaranteed ratings. Newham’s two recent murders, committed in the afternoon and likely to be witnessed, conform to the theory.

Such behaviour has also escalated the risk to officers. Chaudhri, who grew up in Newham, has monitored the evolution of its criminals from working-class white protection rackets to the competitive and chaotic world of drug-dealing, and believes the streets have become more threatening to its police. “They are a lot uglier, more violent. Assaults on officers have increased,” she said.

Friday’s patrol with Douglas quickly articulated the dynamic. After briefing his unit on officer safety and reminding them to “be nice” to everyone, the first person they encountered in Stratford Park launched into a volley of invective and threatening behaviour. Douglas rolled his eyes and said: “People can get a little bit angsty, the increased media coverage of assaults on emergency workers has led to both sympathy and copycat attacks. Some do feel a little bit empowered, like it’s fair game.”Reports of disproportionate policing risk inspiring such behaviour. On Friday, a Newham officer was dismissed after hitting a vulnerable teenage girl with a baton “at least 30 times” in the street.

It is necessary to return to Stratford Park to trace the genesis of Newham’s next potential wave of tit-for-tat gang violence. There, in July 2016, a fight broke out between two groups from different sides of Newham. As children screamed, a 20-year-old was stabbed fatally by a man linked to the Beckton district. What followed next is described by Butt as the UK’s most savage gangland feud. Primarily, it sprang from the brutal instincts of two young men. From Beckton was “Young Dizz” – real name Isaac Donkoh – who ran the #6/ACG (Anyone Can Go) outfit.

His nemesis was CB – real name Lekan Akinsoji, but known as “the Devil” for his violent drill music lyrics. Akinsoji led the #7 gang from Forest Gate’s Woodgrange estate.

Murders, frenzied knife attacks, shootings and violent “ride-outs” into rival’s territory followed. Both gangs grew; in reputation and size. Donkoh was particularly adept at recruiting Newham’s vulnerable youngsters.

Court documents portray a charming “recruiting sergeant” who enticed teenagers with bagels and chicken meals or took them to fancy restaurants.

In the summer of 2017, the gangs fought with knives inside Stratford’s Westfield shopping centre.

Two weeks later, a 14-year-old schoolboy, Corey Junior “CJ” Davis, was fatally shot in the head near a playground in Forest Gate. The murder remains unsolved. “CJ’s death changed the game, the desensitised way that some reacted to the killing. It had gone too far,” said Butt.

Revenge attacks between the Forest Gate and Beckton gangs intensified. Ultimately, it took two audacious displays of violence to bring down their leaders. In July 2018, while hunting rivals, Akinsoji’s stolen BMW was chased by police. Eventually cornered, the 23-year-old was jailed after pointing a sawn-off shotgun at officers while wearing a clown mask.

Two weeks later, Donkoh, 24, led a group who kidnapped and tortured a 16-year-old boy. Donkoh and three of his gang were jailed for a total of 23 years.

Yet gang structures operate like a hydra; cut off their head, others quickly grow back. “Elders get sent to prison and the youngers take on the responsibility of the wars,” says Butt. On Wednesday, he visited the strip where the Jah brothers were murdered, studying the accumulating pile of flowers marking Newham’s latest teenage homicide. Plugged into the latest street rumours, Butt worries more bloodshed may follow. “There’s a lot of fear, talk of retribution.”

Police sources believe 20 gangs operate in Newham. Butt estimates Newham has around “5,000 soldiers” affiliated to gangs, many of whom tell him they don’t see any other way to make a name for themselves. Others just need money. More than half of Newham’s children are judged to be in households living in poverty.

“The lack of equality and diversity is such that we have people fighting each other at the bottom of the food chain. We are the crabs in the bucket, trying to get hold of a snippet of what is available,” said Butt.

The Home Office taskforce was meant to shrink gang membership. “At the moment, we have a revolving door of endless recruits,” said Harding. Newham certainly has the numbers: 38% of its 353,000 population is aged below 24.

Harding believes drug gangs have been so successful they may have reached “over-saturation,” a point where competitors jostle lethally for business. “Then it becomes about taking the others out.”

Others believe the “thug life” has shifted from a criminal to a cultural phenomenon, a lifestyle likely to seduce more white, more middle-class youngsters. “Then people will take proper notice,” says Butt.

For now, places like Newham are coping with its destabilising impact. Rokshana Fiaz, who became Newham mayor in 2018 when the Home Office taskforce was launched, was initially staggered at the lack of resources geared to tackling youth violence.

She has launched a youth safety board, increased the number of fulltime youth workers from three to 43 and commissioned considerable analysis to decipher the “shape-shifting ecology” of youth violence.

Is the war on gangs being won? “You’d need to ask the police,” she says. Douglas points to several metrics, primarily that Newham’s murder rate has fallen for three years.

Butt demands other changes. As someone who knows killers and their motivations, he believes increased jail terms for murderers are required. He flags the recent sentencing of a Newham gangster who hacked a rival to death with a machete300 metres north of The Compound. The ringleader, 16 at the time, was jailed for at least 18 years and three months. “They might be out in nine years as a hero. They factor that in when they plan the attack,” said Butt.

Rachid has no idea what he’ll be doing in nine years. He feels chained to Newham yet says the area is holding him back. “I need to get out of here. But how?”

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