Fishmongers’ Hall inquest laid bare failure to act on warning signs
When MI5 marked its own homework over the Fishmongers’ Hall attack, it concluded there was nothing it could have done to stop Usman Khan, a convicted terrorist, from killing Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones.
But evidence presented to the inquest into their deaths casts doubt on this rosy self-assessment and the jury criticised “missed opportunities for those with expertise”. Six weeks of testimony detailed numerous failed chances to stop Khan and a series of glaring warning signs about his behaviour and state of mind in the run-up to the attack.
MI5, the police and the probation service, all knew that Khan was due to go to a prisoner education event at the hall adjacent to London Bridge on 29 November 2019. But they did nothing to stop him or even take the precaution of sending a police escort.
The apparent failures stretched back to 2018, when Khan was automatically released on licence after serving eight years for trying to set up a terrorist training camp in Pakistan.
In prison he was known as “High Risk Khan” with a record that ran to more than 2,000 pages. It detailed Khan’s violence, extremism, bullying and association with some of the most dangerous men on the prison estate including Charles Bronson, Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebowale; and the hate preachers Anjem Choudary and Abu Hamza.
In prison, Khan got into creative writing when attending courses organised by Learning Together, a prisoner education initiative run by Cambridge University. Khan was regarded as “poster boy” for the initiative, the inquest heard.
And it was this that created a “blind spot” to his “unique risks”, the jury found. Fatally, Khan was invited to the Fishmongers’ Hall alumni event.
In the run-up to his release in December 2019, there was prison intelligence that Khan planned to “return to his old ways”and was intent on planning an attack. MI5 assessed that Khan’s threat level to the public had increased, reopened an investigation into him and began a covert surveillance operation when Khan was released into an approved hostel in Stafford.
Special branch officers at West Midlands and Staffordshire police knew about this troubling intelligence.
But it was kept secret from those responsible for Khan’s overt management: his probation officer, Ken Skelton, and a Prevent team at Stafford police, led by Sgt Calum Forsyth. The inquest was told that such information is not always shared for fear of inadvertent disclosure.
Last year, the independent reviewer of terrorism, Jonathan Hall, QC recommended “wider sharing with probation officers not only of specific intelligence but also of threat assessments and profiles”.
Skelton and Forsyth did not even know MI5 was investigating Khan. With no knowledge of the intelligence that Khan could be intent on an attack, Skelton and Forsyth regarded the event as a positive opportunity for his rehabilitation.
For its part, MI5 did not know the event was due to take place in the hall until a week before, and yet Skelton and Forsyth had known about the location for months.
Khan’s risk to the public was discussed by the police and probation service at regular multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) meetings.
MI5 attended some of these meetings unbeknown to fellow attendees Skelton and Forsyth.
A senior MI5 figure, referred to only as Witness A, was asked repeatedly at the inquest why MI5 did not raise objections when in August it first heard of Khan’s event in London. “We had got no intelligence to indicate any concern,” she replied.
And yet at around this time MI5 and counter-terrorism police had intervened to stop Khan being allowed to train as a dumper truck driver. They feared Khan could use a heavy vehicle as a terrorist weapon.
By November, MI5 was about to wind down the investigation into Khan. And according to Witness A, it regarded the Fishmongers’ Hall event as “a possible opportunity to obtain greater coverage around Khan to better understand his mindset” to check before closing the investigation.
In hindsight, there were already signs that Khan’s mood was darkening in the run-up to the attack.
Mentors assigned to him under the government’s desistance programme, reported he was growing frustrated with his inability to find work. But his twice-weekly visits with mentors came to an abrupt halt in August 2019 because of a contract dispute between the firm providing the service and the Home Office. No replacements were found even during the “critical time” in September, when Khan moved to his own flat.
In the weeks that followed police were concerned that Khan was becoming isolated – a trait that a prison psychologist had identified as a warning sign of trouble.
On 14 November, counter-terrorism police ordered a visit to Khan’s flat.
Officers found seven editions of Assassins’ Creed, a violent video game in which users kill fictitious enemies with weapons including a blade concealed in an arm holster. A police request to photograph these games upset Khan, who described it as a “breakdown in trust”. Two weeks later he killed Merritt and Jones with knives strapped to his arms.
Despite their surveillance, MI5 failed to spot that Khan purchased a set of kitchen knives a day before the attack, together with materials for a fake suicide vest.
But they already knew about his preoccupation with knives.
In early 2019, MI5 officers were given a copy of a play Khan had written about a knife killer released from a secure institution. It features an investigation into whether the murders could have been prevented. The play “didn’t give cause for concern”, according to MI5.
MI5 has pledged that it will share more intelligence in future.
But it insisted it did all it could in Khan’s case.
The jury found “serious deficiencies in the management of Khan by Mappa.”
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