And when Mark Townley returned to Belfast after his Army discharge, he flirted with Johnny Adair’s UFF ‘C’ Company while working as a local volunteer drugs counsellor.
Townley — who changed his name by deed poll to Ashraf Islam — was jailed for three years last week over his sinister plot to murder Prince Harry, who is fourth in line to the throne.
His defence counsel said 31-year-old Islam was suffering from mental problems at the time he was hatching his plan to kill Prince Harry.
Now Sunday Life can reveal that Townley has suffered mental health issues most of his adult life — and he has craved attention and the spotlight.
A source who knows him well told Sunday Life: “He is a total Walter Mitty character. Always has been and always will be.
“His plan to murder Prince Harry was the latest in a long line of crackpot plans he has had.’’
A Sunday Life investigation can reveal that Townley aka Mark Hamill, Tony Mandez and Ashraf Islam:
* is a former soldier in the British Army who was drummed out for misconduct;
* boasted he once joined the French Foreign Legion;
* was arrested in England in the 2000s by police and flown back to Northern Ireland to be questioned about an attempted armed robbery;
* is a reformed heroin addict;
* was on the fringes of Johnny Adair’s ‘C’ Company over a decade ago when he worked in west Belfast; and
* set up a bogus loan shark company with loyalist paramilitaries.
Today, Sunday Life pieces together the jigsaw of Mark Townley’s life from baby-face schoolboy to wannabe militant Islam fanatic.
Raised in the seaside town of Bangor, Co Down Townley came from a devoutly Christian and respectable family and was grammar school educated like four other siblings.
A former friend told Sunday Life: “When he turned 15 he started to go off the rails. He started to get heavily involved in theft.
“A year later his dad Joe bought Mark and his three older brothers motorbikes. The dad was showing them his love and how did Mark repay that love? He sold all four bikes
off within six months. It just devastated the family how Mark was turning out — into a common crook and thief.’’
At 17, Townley left Northern Ireland. He married and had two children but he later abandoned them for a life of crime and drugs.
In 2002, he returned from a spell in Scotland and to the horror of his family he had become a heroin junkie.
Police investigations have revealed that over a period of a decade he set up more than 30 bogus companies.
In 2004, aged just 21, Townley set up No Problem Loans with the help of some loyalist paramilitary heavies.
He promised clients that for a £25 arrangement fee they could get cash, but very few got a penny and Townley ended up getting a six month suspended jail sentence for fraud.
Facing threats to his life from loyalists, debt ridden Townley re-emerged in Liverpool in 2006 calling himself Tony Mandez, boss of the Mandez Corporation which offered an intensive £250 training session in the security industry and guaranteed work in Iraq.
The scam was quickly exposed and Townley received another suspended jail sentence in Liverpool after admitting 14 fraud charges.
He moved to Dublin where he brazenly launched the Eire Models agency, billing young women and girls €200 to provide them with a portfolio and give them a leg up in the industry.
There were floods of complaints from girls who contacted the press and police saying they were being pressured into handing over cash.
In 2009 he returned to Belfast to set up the National Task Force, a firm he claimed would link the voluntary organisations with training and equipment opportunities.
But the Gasworks based firm was soon being probed by cops. Investigations showed five boxing clubs in Britain paid NTF £1,016 each for rings that never appeared while six community groups forked out £4,800 each for minibuses via NTF that never showed up.
In 2011, now bearded and tattooed and using the name of Star Wars actor Mark Hamill, Townley set up Maria Marx Photography training agency in Belfast.
Twenty-six interns paid £150 for the course with the promise of a guaranteed salary at the end.
One 20-year-old student recalled: “We had to use our own cameras and borrowed equipment. The whole thing was just unprofessional. He didn’t really seem to know what he was doing.”
The students called the cops and Townley eventually got 10 months at Maghaberry Prison for his latest dumb scam.
Six months after his release his family were shocked when he turned
up on a relative’s doorstep looking for a bed.
Said a former friend: “He was now sporting a large beard and had tattoos around the back of his head, on his ear and he had got teardrops on his, apparently some sort of sign that he was a killer. He was dressed in full robes and a wearing the hat.
“He had changed his name too to Ashraf Islam and claimed he was a Muslim.
“There was nothing spiritual in his move to Islam. It was all hatred, anger and aggression.’’
The friend said Townley was also making secret trips to London, visiting mosques and praising the speeches of vile preacher Anjem Choudary.
Suspicions were raised when a passport turned up at a relative’s home in his new name. “He called round, picked it up and then headed to Dublin. Within a space of a few days, Bangor CID raided the relative’s house saying it was about fraud. Mark was at it again, up to his old tricks.”
Townley, who has 32 fraud convictions to his name, was arrested by Gardai and hauled back to Northern Ireland to face more time for fraud.
“When he got out of jail in the summer of 2012, he had the brass neck to ring this relative up but he was told to get lost and never call back again.
“He was just out of jail again and announced he was going to make a pornographic movie call Jesus Christ Porn Star,’’ said the pal.
“As far as his family is concerned the porn movie was the worst thing he had done on them until then, given their devout Christian beliefs.”
But worse was to come for the family. In May last year, Townley — now Ashraf Islam — handed himself into police after drummer Lee Rigby was killed in Woolwich. Last week his barrister, Roxanne Morrell, told a judge that Islam had given himself up and confessed his plot to murder Prince Harry.
Jailing Ashraf for three years, Judge Richard McGregor-Johnson said: “The examination of your computer revealed you conducted research on his (Prince Harry’s) whereabouts and intentions. You had given the matter considerable thought.”
Ms Morrell said her client had a personality disorder.
The family friend told Sunday Life: “He has been in and out of mental hospitals all his life. He needs help.”
Friends of his family believe his conversion to Islam was probably another crackpot plan at fraud.
Added the pal: “To be honest I don’t think he would ever actually take part in anything as big as the plot to murder Prince Harry. It's just that he likes to be in the spotlight.
“But whatever this is all about, his family is totally disgusted with him.''