Fortean London: The Helpful Terrorist

By Scott Wood Last edited 164 months ago

Last Updated 16 September 2010

Fortean London: The Helpful Terrorist

Harrods by CHC_5465.jpg After the 11th September terrorist attacks in 2001 a rumour of the ‘Helpful Terrorist’ spread quickly across the world, including amongst frightened Londoners who feared their city would be next. Warnings of the possibility of another attack started popping into people’s email inboxes. This example was collected by Snopes, the Urban Legends Reference Pages, describing the girlfriend of a friend of a relative of a friend of a relative meeting him in Harrods:

There was an Arab man in front of her who was buying a number of things with cash - he was a few pounds short so the girl offered him £3 to cover it.

He thanked her profusely and left. When she left the store the man followed her out and thanked her again and warned her not to travel on the tube today! [1st October 2001]. She was a little thrown by this so she went to the police. The police were very skeptical but in order to eliminate her suspicions gave her the photo-ID book of all known dissidents in the UK. He was on the second page, listed as a known terrorist.

This is apparently true and the police are apparently taking this extremely seriously. The most likely time would be rush hour this evening so please avoid it if you can - who knows it may be nothing but is it worth the risk?

This woman gave a mystery man £3 in Harrods and is warned of an attack on the tube. The warning came cheaper in Birmingham where 68p given in a Cash & Carry buys a warning about going into Birmingham town centre on a certain date. Warnings were also given in Coventry, Tamworth, Milton Keynes and Chester.

Snopes collected an earlier, helpful terrorist myth from 2000 in Manchester. A woman helped a young man short of money in a queue at Burger King. She was rewarded by being warned, in a soft Irish accent, to keep out of the Trafford Shopping centre in the month of March.

Last week’s post described some of the urban myths flying around London during the first and second world wars. One would be very familiar to our twenty-first century eyes.

Sir Basil Thomson, head of CID at Scotland Yard during the start of the First World War, wrote in his book, Queer People (one thing that has changed is some language usage, here ‘queer’ means ‘strange’) about some of his investigations from that time. In it he describes the:

‘delusion of the grateful German and the Tubes. The commonest form of the story was that an English nurse had brought a German officer back from the door of death, and that in a burst of gratitude he said at parting, ' I must not tell you more, but beware of the Tubes in April (1915).’

‘As time wore on the date was shifted forward month by month, to September, when it died of expectation deferred. ‘

Thomson - apparently concerned about the story - followed it

from mouth to mouth until we reached the second mistress in a London Board School. She declared that she had heard it from the charwoman who cleaned the school, but that lady stoutly denied that she had ever told so ridiculous a story.

This rumour appeared in the Second World War too: the nurse treating a captured German pilot who was rewards for her kindness by being warned to make sure she carried her gas mask on 15th September.

In 1605 the catholic Lord Monteagle was having dinner in Hoxton when he received a letter pleading with him to “shift of your attendance at this Parliament” as Parliament was due “a terrible blow” on 5 November from Guy Fawkes and the gun-powder plotters. The origin of this warning is suspected to be from Monteagle himself who knew some of the plotters but did not want to be seen to betray them himself . Another suggestion was that it was a secret service letter created to be concrete evidence against the plotters. Basil Thomson, the hunter for WWI's helpful terrorist, was a former intelligence officer sometimes involved in disseminating misinformation. Perhaps this urban legend is some covert way of drawing information out of the public in times of crisis? Let's not get too carried with that one just yet.

Not matter where he is from, some of you may have met the ‘Helpful Terrorist’ via an email, if not actually in a shop. You may meet him again. London always lives in dangerous times that inspire rumour and myth. If you do, please treat him with respect, but no credulity, as he is older than he seems. And also, please, let your Fortean Londoner know, he’s always keen to add to his collection.

Harrods / Underground Image by Chris ???? from the Londonist Flickr pool.