JAN Trust CEO Sajda Mughal OBE, spoke to My London about her traumatic experience of surviving the 7/7 London bombings and what has changed — and what hasn’t changed — on counterterrorism, seventeen years on.
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In the wake of the devastating terrorist attack 17 years ago that claimed 52 people’s lives, survivor Sajda Mughal has turned her life to counterterrorism.
Like many women in their early twenties, Sajda Mughal had dreams of a job in the city, travelling the world, and soaking up all life had to offer. What she could never have expected was to be one of the many commuters caught in the devastating 7/7 terrorist attacks that happened 17 years ago today.
In 2005, Sajda was running late for her corporate job in HR when she forwent her usual ritual of hopping onto the front carriage of her Tube on the Piccadilly line. Instead, she boarded the closest carriage and just 10 seconds into her journey, Sajda’s life changed forever.
The mum-of-two, who was just 23 at the time, heard an almighty bang which would later be revealed to be the sound of a homemade bomb. It exploded in one of four coordinated attacks across London that left 52 victims dead. The ramifications of the tragic event changed Sajda’s career and personal life trajectory, leading her to be awarded an OBE for her grassroots work with communities, but leaving a psychological impact that means she has panic attacks to this day.
In 2005, Sajda had dreams of moving up the career ladder in the corporate world, as a champion for equality and diversity. While on the way to work on July 7 that year, she boarded the six-car London Underground train, number 311, travelling southbound from King’s Cross St Pancras to Russell Square.
Sajda told MyLondon about the twist of fate that meant she did not board the front of the train, where the bomb was later detonated. She said: “I was running late, I was frantic. And normally, every single day before the 7th of July, I had this ritual to sit in front of that Tube, and I did that every single day even if I was late.
“That morning, I didn’t sit on the first carriage. I don’t know what happened. I just literally jumped onto the Tube but not onto the first carriage.”
As the train departed, at 8.49am, a bomb was detonated at the rear of the first car of the train. Two other explosions took place on London Underground trains travelling on the Circle line – one headed towards Aldgate, the second near Edgware Road. A fourth bomb was detonated at 9.47am on a double-decker bus in Tavistock Square.
The explosions claimed 52 lives and left 700 people injured.
Sajda said chaos ensued immediately after the “deafening” bang on her Tube carriage. She explained: “It was the loudest bang I’ve ever heard, it popped your ears. It felt like the train hit something and shook and came to a standstill. The lights went out and the emergency lights came on.
“I noticed that people had fallen forwards off their chairs [but] I just went into shock, because I just remained still. I was sat down but I had fallen off my chair – I got back up. During this time thick black smoke was filling up the carriages and it was getting so intense my vision was blurred. People were choking and I started to choke and cough, so I then took my blazer off and covered my face.”
Sajda’s initial thought was that the train had derailed. She then came to the conclusion that as they were at a standstill, another train would hit their Tube, killing everyone in the carriage. At 23, her thoughts turned to her loved ones, who she feared she would never see again.
“My thought process instantly went into this negative thought process that ‘Oh my god, we’ve derailed, it’s rush hour morning – the next Tube is going to leave King’s Cross and hit us and there’s going to be a massive fireball and we’re all going to be burned to death,'” she said.
“So I thought: ‘That’s it, July 7th 2005, is my last day. This is the day I’m gonna die.’ And I became really emotional internally that I hadn’t said bye to my mother. I hadn’t said bye to my loved ones. I hadn’t done the things I wanted to, like get married, have kids, travel the world.
“I just went into a state of panic and shock. What I took in was people screaming, bloody people trying to bang on the doors and the windows being unbreakable. We weren’t going anywhere. The screams, the panic, the shouts, the sweating, the choking.”
Forty-five minutes later, in what felt like a “lifetime,” Sajda felt relieved to finally hear a police officer calling to say that emergency services were on the scene and were going to save them. Before that life-saving moment, she said she felt a “noose around [her] heart.”
“I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “It was only when I heard that distant voice, that one male voice saying: ‘It’s police! We’re coming to get you’ – that’s when I felt the biggest sense of relief in my life. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, there is a way out today,’ and that noose around my heart became looser, and I thought I could breathe again.”
The Piccadilly line suicide attack claimed 26 of the 52 victims.
Survivors walked along the tracks to an “eerily empty” King’s Cross St Pancras Station where staff dragged people up onto the platforms to safety. Emergency services tended to the worst injuries whilst Sajda, in a state of shock and covered in soot, ran to the nearest McDonald’s in search of a safe space.
There, she simply “broke down.” At 10.05am, a time she remembers “like it was yesterday,” she saw a news headline reporting that the train had derailed, confirming her initially theory.
Asked if she ever considered it could be a terrorist attack that had caused the explosion, Sajda said: “Never, never, ever, ever, in a million years did I ever think that there would be a bomb in London on the Tube system.”
She “frantically” attempted to contact her mum and partner but, with the networks down, was unable to speak to her loved ones to reassure them that she was okay. With transport lacking, she walked on foot from King’s Cross to Wood Green in North London.
At midday, she stopped in a sweet shop to get a bottle of water and it was only then that she heard any mention of a bomb. She explained the interaction that left her reeling: “A customer said to the shopkeeper: ‘Have you heard what happened?’ And he said, ‘no.’ And she said: ‘They’re saying it was a bomb.’ I just did a double-take and literally said: ‘No, it can’t be.'”
She replayed the conversation for the rest of her walk home. Arriving there at 2pm, she curled up on the sofa to cry. Sajda said: “I remember just running straight down my road, opening the lock to the front door, shutting it, locking it, shutting all the curtains, all the lights off, and just curling up on the sofa, and breaking down and waiting for loved ones to come home.”
Sajda, now 40, claims that the government offered her no support in the aftermath of her near-death experience. She was signed off work and credits her mother and partner for helping her to survive the trauma, though she still has nightmares and flashbacks.
Understandably, she still struggles to travel on the Underground. She said: “I couldn’t travel on the Tube system. It brings back bad memories.”
One day, just last year, she attempted to board a carriage once more, travelling towards Victoria station. Unfortunately for Sajda, the train was stopped for 20 minutes, bringing back a flood of traumatic memories.
“I literally had a panic attack,” she said. “I was sweating. I was nervous. I thought, ‘Oh my god, please don’t let this be the same thing again.’ And that was 16 years later and still, that was the case.”
She added: “They say time is a healer, but you’ll never forget, and I never forget. I can give timings because they’re just so distinctive to me. I remember like it was yesterday. I even remember some of the faces in my carriage – I’d be able to point them out. It’s something that you will never forget.”
Sajda also remembers her shock at learning that the extremist terrorists who carried out the attacks claimed to share the same faith she practised. She explained: “I couldn’t comprehend it was a bomb, that was just not digestible, but then to find out that it was four men from within my faith was even more incomprehensible because I knew this was not what my religion taught having been brought up in a practising household.
“I knew that this was not my religion in any way and I knew that they must have been brainwashed.”
Her frustration and shock motivated her to find answers, determined to turn her life towards grassroots community work in counterterrorism to ensure no one ever had to experience what she had. She quit her corporate job and began working with her mother’s charity JAN Trust, which was set up in 1989 to help vulnerable women and young people to overcome barriers to integration and inclusion.
“That’s when I left my dream,” she said. “I left it wanting to pursue counterterrorism, to work with communities, specifically my own community and Muslim communities – to educate them, to equip mainly mothers, because they are the key anchor of the home. To equip them so they can save their children and ultimately, protect society.”
To do so, Sajda wants people to educate themselves on the dangers of technology by submerging themselves in it. She says mothers and fathers should be tech-savvy, to be aware of what their children are looking at online, keeping up to date with current affairs and being involved in their children’s lives.
Over the past decade, she has travelled the UK promoting Web Guardians, which is designed to help prevent online extremism. She said: “I’ve worked with moms who have lost their sons to ISIS and they very often have said, ‘If only we’d been part of such an initiative before, we could have protected our kid.'”
At 27 years old, Sajda was travelling up and down the country, spreading the message, with a one-week-old baby attached to her hip. She did not take maternity leave, determined to continue working just two days after she gave birth.
Though she credits her children for helping her through her twenties, she said the traumatic 7/7 bombing forced her to grow up and pursue her aspirations faster than she perhaps would have. She shared: “I didn’t think I would be having kids so soon in my twenties. I kind of imagined kids later on in life, but it sped everything up.
“I’d come up from a near-death experience and I thought, ‘Right, I just gotta get on with it,’ and I think that’s part of my work as well – I need to get on with it. I can’t sit here and withdraw myself and fall into this spiral. I’ve just got to get on with it.”
She added: “I had gone through such a traumatic, near-death experience and I didn’t want this, again, for myself, for the rest of London, for anyone in the UK, for my future generations and anyone else’s. I didn’t want that because I know what I went through that day and I know what I saw.”
Sajda was awarded an OBE in 2015 for services to Community Cohesion and Interfaith Dialogue and has won multiple awards for her charity work as director of the JAN Trust.
She worked as a Special Adviser to Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan’s, Countering Violent Extremism programme and she was also part of the UK Government’s Prevent strategy. Sajda described the strategy as not successfully achieving its purpose of protecting and safeguarding communities.
Over the past 17 years, she described the frustration of achieving so much while things did not appear to change in government policy.
She said: “Sometimes I question, do they really actually care about countering terrorism? Or is it just about egos and personalities? It’s been very, very frustrating, having worked with the government. It’s been a very emotional journey. It’s been mentally draining.”
She added: “I’ve heard from families across the UK how the Prevent strategy itself has been discriminatory towards them, and has increased hostility within communities. So I know first hand, what damage the Prevent strategy has done and continues to do to young people.”
A more ‘hard line’ approach taken to counterterrorism, would result in further problems, according to Sajda. She said: “You’re going to have more vulnerable young people questioning their identity, which means you’re going to have more hostility within communities, and more hostility within society – more community tension.”
So what can be done? Sajda believes working with communities first-hand is the best way to counterterrorism. She explained: “We need a strategy that doesn’t demonise communities and in turn exacerbate the issue of terrorism. We need a strategy that protects us, by working with communities first-hand. I went out to work with communities, to listen to communities, to change those hearts and minds.”
Now, 17 years on, with Sajda’s whole life trajectory permanently changed, she remembers the day that led her to where she is today – a mother-of-two with an OBE and a successful charity.
“I’m thankful that I came out of it alive and I’m thankful that I was able to basically turn that set of events around to do something for the positive. I know when I go to sleep at night, I’ve worked with hundreds of women across the UK, to protect their kids and to protect society,” she said.
However, Sajda also told MyLondon that this year has been “harder than other years” as the news cycle has been dominated by the political turmoil at No10. She observed how some politicians appear to have breezed over the anniversary of the attacks.
She said: “We had a really deadly attack 17 years ago in which 52 people were killed, and over 700 were injured. There are victims like myself up there, and it’s a kick in the teeth. So it’s been a day that has been harder than other years.”
Luckily, even if some members of Parliament did not acknowledge the tragic events that occurred that day, Sajda’s children offered comfort and unwavering support this morning.
“They woke up and they gave me a big hug and they knew it was the 7th of July so they gave me a big hug and they said: ‘Mommy don’t worry, we’re here,'” she said.