The Untold Story Of The 1999 London Nail Bombings

Over the course of two weeks in April 1999, neo-Nazi David Copeland terrorized London with a series of nail bombs aimed at minority communities. Dozens of people ended up with horrific injuries and three people were killed as a result of the nail bombs. At the time, nail bombs were the first serial bombing England had ever experienced.

Although Copeland falsely convinced doctors that he had paranoid schizophrenia, during a honeytrap ruse, he boasted about fooling the doctors and in 2000, the court convicted him on numerous counts, per Esquire. As it stands, Copeland is likely not going to be released from prison in his lifetime.

Meanwhile, those who survived the attacks live with the physical and psychological impact of the bombings. Some of the survivors still don't feel comfortable in crowded rooms. And in some instances, it was only down to sheer luck that more people weren't injured.  

Targeting Brixton's Black community

On April 17, 1999, a nail bomb with 1,500 nails in it exploded in Brixton Market in London, England at 5:26 in the afternoon. Hundreds of nails went flying in every direction and The Guardian reports that the blast could be heard up to a mile away and even "blew a parked car across Electric Avenue."

Intended to target Brixton's Black community, 48 people were injured in total, and many witnesses described the scene as "carnage." Victims ended up with nails and glass embedded all over their bodies, including a 23-month-old boy who ended up with a nail lodged in his skull, according to Report Hate Now. Birmingham Post reports that the nail was removed after a one-and-a-half-hour-long operation and the boy seemed to be recovering well after the surgery.

According to The Tab, the bomb was made using firework explosives and four-inch nails and was taped inside of a blue sports bag. Witnesses saw David Copeland, the perpetrator, leave the bag at the market and although they managed to move it to a less crowded area and call the police before the bomb detonated, by the time authorities arrived, it was already too late.

The following Monday, April 19, a man who claimed to be part of Combat 18, an extreme-right group, claimed that the group was responsible for the attack, per the BBC.

Targeting Brick Lane's Bangladeshi community

On April 24, a second nail bomb went off on Brick Lane in Spitalfields, East London. According to The Tab, Copeland wanted the bomb to go off when the street was busiest, but didn't realize that the street market was held on Sunday rather than Saturday. Nevertheless, Copeland left another sports bag with a nail bomb in it on Hanbury Street on Saturday, this time targeting the large Bangladeshi community in the area.

However, before the nail bomb had a chance to explode, someone noticed the bag and moved it into the trunk of their car in order to take it to the police. The BBC reports that while the man was calling the police to report what he believed was lost property, the nail bomb exploded inside the car's trunk at 6 p.m. And although the trunk was closed, 13 people were injured and even nearby buildings were damaged.

According to Emdad Talukder, one of the victims who was walking down Brick Lane at the time, debris from the car flew "four stories high."

Targeting Soho's LGBTQ+ community

The third and final nail bomb went off shortly after 6:37 p.m. on Friday, April 29 inside the Admiral Duncan pub on Old Compton Street in Soho, London. According to the BBC, this pub was chosen due to its largely LGBTQ+ clientele.

Because that Friday was the beginning of a bank holiday, the streets were busy. Some of the people at the pub noticed the nail bomb before it detonated, and the pub's manager headed over to take a look at the bag. It was then that the bomb exploded, per The Tab.

Andrea Dykes, Nick Moore, and John Light were all killed in the bombing, and an additional 79 people were injured. Some of the injuries were so severe that four survivors had at least one of their limbs amputated. Meanwhile, those in a neighboring pub cared little for the suffering of others, and at least one woman used a homophobic slur when she told someone that she "wanted to get a better view" of those injured in the bombing.

Gary Reid, a survivor of the blast, lost his left leg because Copeland's pet rats had defecated on the bombs, resulting in an infection in Reid's leg, per The Cinemaholic. Scott Terry, another survivor, still has nine nails in his spine 20 years later.

By this point, according to CNN, police were offering the equivalent of $80,000 as a reward for the arrest of the person(s) responsible for the incidents.

Tracking down David Copeland

By April 29, police already had an idea of who was responsible for the bombing since CCTV captured an image of Copeland during the Brixton bombing. After releasing this image to the public, the following day the anti-terror team was contacted by a man who claimed to recognize the suspect as David Copeland, per The Tab.

Less than three hours after the third bomb went off, police acquired the address of Copeland. A raid was planned for the following day and on May 1, 1999, Copeland was arrested. According to the BBC, when Copeland was arrested, police found clippings of newspaper coverage of the nail bombings as well as a Nazi flag hanging in his room. On May 2, 22-year-old Copeland was charged with three counts of murder and three counts of causing an explosion that intended to endanger lives. Copeland made a full confession, during which he explained how he learned how to make the bombs.

During his confession, Copeland also underlined his intentions: "My main intent was to spread fear, resentment, and hatred throughout this country. My aim was political. It was to cause a racial war in this country. There'd be a backlash from the ethnic minorities, then all the white people will go out and vote BNP (British National Party)."

On June 30, 2000, Copeland was found guilty and sentenced to six consecutive life sentences, per Report Hate Now.