A couple who took in the suspect in the Liverpool Remembrance Sunday bomb attack believed he was an “absolutely genuine” Christian who had a “real passion for Jesus Christ”.
Emad Al Swealmeen, who was a Christian convert and reportedly had an asylum claim rejected in 2014, was taken in by Malcolm and Elizabeth Hitchcott in the city in 2017.
Hitchcott said Al Swealmeen first contacted the couple after his asylum appeal was dismissed and was “desperate” for somewhere to stay.
He told BBC Radio Merseyside: “He arrived here on April 1, 2017. He was with us then for eight months, and during that time we saw him really blossoming in regards to his Christian faith.
“He really had a passion about Jesus that I wish many Christians had, and he was ready to learn.
“He was keen on reading his Bible and every night we used to pray – my wife and him, and if there was anybody else in the house – we prayed for half an hour or so and studied the scriptures. We had a great time together.”
Hitchcott added: “He was absolutely genuine, as far as I could tell. When you live with somebody in a small terraced house… you learn an awful lot about people and how their habits are, how they relate to one another, the things they think about, it’s a good assessing ground.
“I was in no doubt by the time that he left us at the end of that eight months that he was a Christian.”
The 32-year-old died in the blast in a taxi outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital shortly before 11am on Remembrance Sunday.
Taxi driver David Perry escaped the vehicle and has since been discharged from hospital.
Hitchcott said motor-racing fan Al Swealmeen changed his name to Enzo Almeni – after the renowned motorsport figure Enzo Ferrari – to shorten it and “make it more European” and “not for any ulterior motive”.
Describing the moment he found out what had happened, he told the BBC: “I just couldn’t believe it. I was absolutely stunned.
“Here was a chap who was very calm, measured, very deep thinking, but a lovely man with it.
“I only saw him lose his temper once, which is when he thought I was tampering with his mail, but he apologised for that fairly soon afterwards.
“He was a lovely fella. You would say he wouldn’t harm a fly, but he is the sort of chap who considers things deeply first… he was a pleasure to be with.”
Hitchcott added that he hadn’t spoken to Al Swealmeen in four years and there may have been “changes in his personality and his beliefs” during that time.
According to the BBC, Al Swealmeen attempted to lodge an appeal with the Upper Tribunal of the Immigration and Asylum Chamber after he lost his asylum claim and an appeal against the decision in a lower court.
But this attempted appeal was refused without it ever going to a full hearing, the broadcaster reported.
It is not known whether Al Swealmeen was warned he would be removed from the UK.
The Home Office said it does not comment on individual cases.
In response to the reports Al Swealmeen had had an asylum claim rejected, security minister Damian Hinds said: “The deceased individual has been named and we know that the other four people that had been arrested, the police have been satisfied with their account and they’ve been released, they’re not under investigation, nobody else being sought at the moment.
“It’s not right for me to comment in detail or speculate about the background to this individual.
“More will of course become known in time but right now we’re in a live investigation, it’s important that the police investigation has the time and the space it needs to operate.”
The incident has been declared a terrorist attack and the UK terror threat level has since been raised from substantial to severe, meaning an attack is “highly likely” rather than “likely”.
It is understood that an Islamist plot is one line of inquiry but investigators are keeping an open mind and the motivation is yet to be established.
Official sources told the PA news agency the current understanding is still that the hospital was the intended target.
Assistant Chief Constable Russ Jackson, from Counter-Terrorism Police North West, previously told journalists the explosive device had been “manufactured” and the force’s assumption was that it was built by Al Swealmeen.
The inquiry is examining, among other possibilities, whether the main charge on the device failed to explode and if the homemade explosive TATP was used. PA understands forensic investigations are still under way.
Searches have been carried out at an address in Rutland Avenue, where detectives said Al Swealmeen was picked up by the taxi, and at a second property in Sutcliffe Street, where officers believe he previously lived.
Four men arrested under terrorism laws in the Kensington area of Liverpool – three aged 21, 26 and 29, who were held on Sunday, and a man aged 20 who was detained on Monday – have now been released from police custody following interviews.
Police continued to appeal for any information about the incident or the suspected attacker.