The Cheltenham leisure centre is an unlikely location for a spy drama, but on a dark evening in March, as a young woman prepared to head home after a netball match, she was subjected to a terrifying knife attack that rocked the intelligence community.
The brutal assault took place in the sports centre’s car park, just three miles from GCHQ, the UK spy agency base.
The victim was a young American spy, the perpetrator a disturbed computer programmer who has also worked at the secretive listening post.
Joshua Bowles, who was described by his barrister as an Incel – a member of a woman-hating online community of men who consider themselves ‘involuntarily celibate’ having had their sexual overtures to women rejected – was sentenced to life yesterday for what the judge described as a ‘politically motivated’ terrorist attack.
It seems Bowles, 29, did not just have a grudge against women, but against his former employer and the wider intelligence community. Inexplicably, he vented his anger on a woman he didn’t even know.
A police-issued mugshot of Joshua Bowles, 29, who has been jailed for life after attempting to murder an American intelligence agent in March this year
His victim was saved from fatal injuries by the intervention of two passers-by, and because Bowles, armed with two knives, ‘fortuitously missed any major organ’. The stabbing was captured, at least in part, in chilling detail on CCTV.
The footage culminates in the victim, accompanied by a friend, running for her life back into the leisure centre’s reception area, her attacker in pursuit.
One detail that was not revealed at London’s Old Bailey, however, was the victim’s identity. For obvious reasons, she remains anonymous, known only by a series of numbers: 99230.
A spy she may have been, but the victim was also a young woman living out her dreams, having landed a placement at GCHQ via the NSA (the US National Security Agency).
She was, as that game of netball suggests, happily throwing herself into life in the UK. Along with weekly matches with a local team, there was a UK-based boyfriend with whom she was planning to learn to windsurf. She had entered a half-marathon and was studying for a master’s degree.
After the attack, she spent a week in hospital, with wounds to her lower abdomen, chest and right thigh. Her boyfriend’s family supported her while her own relatives made frantic efforts to book flights.
In a victim impact statement, she told the court: ‘He [Bowles] has had a profound effect on me and completely changed my life. It is very difficult to explain to people just how awful it has been.
‘I went from being in the best shape I have ever been in, to the weakest I have ever been… I was hunted by him and I don’t know why.’
CCTV showed Bowles at the venue a month before the attack. Prosecutors said the assault had been ‘premeditated, targeted and vicious’
Bowles (circled on the right) can be seen approaching the woman and her companion – who have been blacked out for security reasons – in the car park of the Cheltenham leisure centre
The attack saw Bowles lash out with a pair of knives, punching and stabbing the American several times
She and her companion – blacked out in the image above – then run for the leisure centre’s reception in a bid to escape
She did not remember ever encountering or speaking to her attacker before, she said, and she has not been able to return to work, leaving her status as a resident in this country in question.
So how did 99230, a woman described in court as ‘high-achieving, strong and capable’, find herself the victim of the outwardly innocuous Joshua Bowles? And more pertinently, perhaps, how did a man who must have passed rigorous security clearances at GCHQ set out to kill a US spy?
The bearded, pale man in a grey jumper, standing in the dock of the Old Bailey on Friday and again yesterday, to be sentenced for attempted murder and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, was an unassuming figure.
Outwardly, Bowles’s life was equally unremarkable. He has a younger sister and, until the events of March 9, lived with his parents at their modest semi-detached home in a suburb of Cheltenham.
He dropped out of his A-levels after becoming obsessed with online gaming, then took an access course, leading to a degree in computer science from Coventry university.
The brutal assault took place in the sports centre’s car park, just three miles from GCHQ, the UK spy agency base
Bowles worked a few shifts at a record shop but, in the words of his defence counsel, he was socially ‘isolated’.
He joined GCHQ in 2019 – his first job and a role that required him to pass GCHQ’s Developed Vetting process. He had been given the organisation’s highest level of clearance, sources told the Mail. His family are struggling to understand how he could have perpetrated such senseless violence.
‘He has never done drugs, he has never smoked and he never drank,’ his grandfather, retired toolmaker John Bowles, 77, told the Mail. ‘GCHQ was the first job he had ever applied for – at the age of 26 – and two and a half years in, his head has gone.’
Insisting his grandson has never been interested in politics, Mr Bowles said: ‘That place, GCHQ, in my opinion, has turned his mind and ruined his life.’ The first signs of his coming descent occurred in 2021 when Bowles, who the court was told has a high functioning form of autism, took time off work suffering with depression.
When he returned to GCHQ he applied to be a higher-level programmer, but was offered only a temporary role – a rejection that led to his resignation in November of that year.
During his earlier visit to the venue, Bowles (seen on the right of the image) walks up to a window that overlooks a leisure hall
That grievance festered and was exacerbated by Bowles’s obsession with the woman who had previously been in the job his intended victim was doing now – a woman who had spurned his advances.
In entries found on his computer, Bowles wrote: ‘Nothing will impress her intellectually, can’t impress her physically, therefore it is over, suicide is the way.’ In the buildup to the leisure centre attack, Bowles made various disturbing searches online.
He was not only familiar with ‘incel’ culture, the court heard, but researched serial killer Theodore Kaczynski – a mathematician known as the Unabomber, who lived as a recluse and ran a mail-bombing campaign in the US from the 1970s to the 1990s – along with attacks on women and white supremacy. On the latter, he had written: ‘This is war, they are replacing you, demoralising you, f*** their system.’
More chilling still was the preparation Bowles put into his attack.
He researched his victim online, looking up her Facebook and Instagram posts, along with two other US nationals who had also worked for the NSA at GCHQ with him. In the month before the attack, he made almost daily visits in his car to GCHQ and visited the leisure centre on a ‘dry run’ on February 9, a month before the attack, when his victim’s netball team was playing a match.
Police outside the leisure centre in March this year after Bowles punched and stabbed the woman multiple times, before assaulting a man who tried to intervene
Whether or not he intended to attack that night is unknown; if he did, he was thwarted by the fact his intended victim was absent.
The attack itself unfolded shortly after 9pm when 99230 and her friend, a fellow American woman identified only as 25869, left the leisure centre to walk to their car.
‘Excuse me,’ Bowles said to them, before he attacked. The victim described how Bowles just kept coming at her with his knife. ‘He just wouldn’t stop,’ she said.
The attack was temporarily halted by the intervention of a man on his way to play football, who was alerted by her screams.
The women took their chance to run back to the centre, but Bowles followed and resumed his attack. A second bystander, Steve Bunn, restrained Bowles, then asked him if he was OK. Bowles said: ‘No, I’ve just tried to kill her.’
Bowles told Mr Bunn that they both worked at GCHQ and if Mr Bunn ‘knew what they did there then he would understand’.
Joshua Bowles, who was described by his barrister as an Incel, was sentenced to life yesterday for what the judge described as a ‘politically motivated’ terrorist attack
In a rambling statement to the police, Bowles said: ‘The system is rigged. I believe the intelligence community helps ensure this rigging, this view has been reinforced by my time working at GCHQ.
‘The target was selected for her employment at the NSA. Due to the size and resourcing, American intelligence represents the largest contributor within the intelligence community so made sense as the symbolic target.
‘I consider GCHQ just as guilty. Any mental health issues I may have, have been induced by the weight of the truth and the bleakness of the situation. Due to fear of retribution from the intelligence community I do not wish to divulge any details of the advanced capabilities I had exposure to whilst working in intelligence.’
Tim Forte, defending, said Bowles’s twin motivations were ‘rejection by the object of his affections’ and a desire to hurt his ex-employer ‘for employment reasons’.
Mrs Justice Cheema-Grubb did not agree, sentencing Bowles to a minimum life term of 13 years.
The judge said Bowles’s internet history showed he had a ‘deep disaffection with society and a desire to challenge authority’.
She told him: ‘The court cannot avoid the conclusion that a significant part of your motivation was that your action would have an adverse impact on the intelligence communities of the United Kingdom and the United States. This was a politically motivated attack.’
Additional reporting: Duncan Gardham