Usman Khan: The 40 missed warning signs on Fishmongers’ Hall attacker
Police, probation officers and the security services failed to act on as many as 40 warning signs which could have prevented the Fishmongers’ Hall terror attack, analysis by The Telegraph shows. Usman Khan – known as “High Risk Khan” during his time in prison – fatally stabbed Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, at a rehabilitation conference in London Bridge in 2019, 11 months after he was released from prison for terror offences. On Friday, a jury found that there was an “omission or failure” by various state agencies, including MI5, West Midlands counter terror police, and probation officers, in the sharing of guidance which contributed to the deaths of the “two bright stars”.
The jury also concluded that those involved with Khan had been blinded by his “poster-boy image” for Learning Together, the rehabilitation charity for which Miss Jones and Mr Merritt worked. Mr Merritt’s parents criticised the security services for being “complacent and passive in the face of Khan’s extreme and continuing threat”, while Miss Jones’s family called on “those who hide behind the cloak of secrecy to search their own conscience and review their own potential failings”. Khan was shot dead by armed police after launching his attack in the male toilets of Fishmongers’ Hall, where he stabbed Mr Merritt multiple times before attacking Miss Jones outside the cloakroom.
Khan went on to severely injure two more Learning Together volunteers before running out onto London Bridge where he was tackled to the ground by two former prisoners, one carrying a narwhal tusk.
Known to security services
Khan, 28, was known to the security services from 2010 and was monitored inside prison on and off throughout his eight-year sentence and in the months after his release. Over the past six weeks, the inquest into the attack heard of a string of violent and concerning events involving Khan from 2010 to 2018. Prison intelligence reports – which stretched over 2,000 pages – recorded him associating with a killer of the soldier Lee Rigby, assaulting a Christian prisoner who refused to convert to Islam, shouting “cut off the kafir’s head” inside his wing, and pledging to return to his “old way” upon his release.
Despite the incidents, he was automatically released from prison in December 2018 after serving just eight years of a 21-year sentence. Upon his release, he was one of only 70 men classified as “high risk” in England and Wales, putting him in the top 0.1 per cent of the prison population in terms of dangerousness.
The jury concluded that there was an ‘omission or failure’ by the agencies responsible for monitoring Usman KhanCredit: Metropolitan Police/PA
Shortly after his release, MI5 got hold of a copy of a play written by Khan called ‘Drive North’ which told the story of a prisoner, deemed fit for release, who goes on to commit a series of deadly knife attacks. MI5 concluded the play was “in line with the literary works” he was producing as part of his rehabilitation. David Merrit, the father of Jack, said the authorities “failed” to keep the public and his son safe following Khan’s “terrible” prison record.
“He was involved in violence and trying to radicalise other prisoners… threatening people, holding so-called Sharia courts, and all this sort of stuff,” Mr Merritt said. Mr Merritt continued: “With all that information, you would have thought that the authorities would have put in place a system to monitor and manage him effectively and keep the public safe, and they failed to do that.” The security services, West Midlands Police’s counter terrorism unit, probation officers and the Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (Mappa) body were responsible for monitoring Khan after his released from prison, the inquest heard.
Lack of accountability
The jurors concluded that there were “missed opportunities for those with expertise and experience to give guidance” in the management of Khan.
The jury at the Guildhall in the City of London criticised the agencies involved in the management of Khan in the community, saying there was “unacceptable management, a lack of accountability and deficiencies in management by Mappa”. The jurors, who found that both Mr Merrit and Ms Jones were unlawfully killed in the attack, finished their verdict by sending their “heartfelt condolences” to the victims’ families reassuring them “how much their children matter”. “The world lost two bright stars that dreadful day,” one juror read to the court.
Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23, were the victims of Khan’s attackCredit: Metropolitan Police/PA
Peter Clarke, the former HM chief inspector of prisons, and head of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said the inquest has “exposed extraordinary systemic failings” that remain unresolved.
Mr Clarke criticised the “deeply flawed” handling of intelligence and warned that “the potential for more preventable tragedies is all too real” in a paper for the think tank Policy Exchange. Over the past six weeks, coroner Mark Lucraft QC has heard evidence from 84 witnesses on the litany of failures that allowed Khan to carry out his murderous act, which covered all aspects of the system from police and probation officers to the security services, the prison authorities and offender management teams. During Khan’s time in prison for plotting to open an overseas jihadi training camp, there had been repeated reports that he was intending to return to his “old ways”.
In reality, Khan never returned to his old ways because he had never left them.
Immersed in jihadism
His entire adult life had been immersed in violent jihadism, first coming across MI5’s radar in 2008 when he was just 17. He would die in a hail of bullets 11 years later at the age of 28 but not before he had brutally stabbed to death two innocent victims (Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones) who had only been trying to do good. Merritt, 25, worked for Learning Together, a Cambridge University charity that helps to rehabilitate prisoners while Jones, 23, was a volunteer.
As a teenager, Khan had been drawn to Al-Muhajiroun, the banned terrorist organisation, that was founded by Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed, now exiled in Lebanon, and run in those days by his sidekick Anjem Choudary, a smooth-tongued former lawyer whose influence on susceptible young Muslims is well documented. By 2010, Khan was arrested and subsequently charged following an investigation which uncovered an extraordinary plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange, the US embassy and the home of Boris Johnson, then London’s mayor.
In 2010, Usman Khan was one of nine members of an al Qaida-inspired terror group that plotted to bomb the London Stock ExchangeCredit: West Midlands Police
A joint operation by MI5 and counter-terrorism police – known as Operation Guava – had thwarted the attack in its early days. Intelligence received by MI5 alerted agents to meetings attended by Khan in November and December 2010.
A covert listening device picked up Khan and two others discussing plans for an attack in a pub using an improvised explosive device, or IED. Khan had found a ‘recipe’ for making a pipe bomb in Inspire, the official magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The nine Stock Exchange bomb plotters came from London, Cardiff and Stoke and Khan, 19, and the youngest member of the group, was accused of trying to establish a terrorist military training camp on land owned by his family in Kashmir.
Khan might have been the youngest but the sentencing judge (Khan pleaded guilty) described him and two others as “more serious jihadis” than his comrades. He was sentenced originally to 18 years in jail, altered on appeal to 16 years with an extended five years on licence. Khan was originally classed as never to be released unless deemed no longer a threat, a condition that was later lifted.
It was just one of the decisions that would lead to catastrophe.
Time in jail
Khan began life in jail in February 2012, having already spent over a year on remand. He was far from a model prisoner. Over the course of eight years spent in prison – why he was released half way through his sentence sparked a furious political row – his behaviour was so troubling that prison intelligence records stretched to more than 2,000 pages.
The worst episodes were made public at the six-week inquest. Despite being in jail, MI5 continued to monitor Khan throughout. He was an active Subject of Interest (known in intelligence circles as an SOI) for more than four years from 2011 to 2015.
His case was closed for the final three years of his sentence although questions will now be asked about the wisdom of doing that. Witness A, an MI5 officer who gave evidence to the inquest into the attack, defended the decision to stop monitoring Khan alongside 3,000 other suspects, telling the jury: “We cannot investigate people forever.” In 2017, Khan was implicated in an assault on a Christian prisoner who had refused to convert to Islam; on another he was seen deep in conversation with Michael Adebolajo, another former member of al-Muhajiroun who had gone into murder the soldier Lee Rigby in cold blood outside Woolwich barracks in one of the most notorious terrorist atrocities.
Like all convicted jihadi terrorists, Khan began his sentence in Belmarsh jail in south east London. The alarm bells were ringing from the start. On remand in January 2011, a prison intelligence report suggested he had access to a weapon and that he was going to “do someone in the eye” or the neck and that he wanted to die and go to paradise.
There were other warning signs. He moved prisons on numerous occasions, first to HMP Wakefield, where Khan was an instigator in persuading fellow Muslims to begin wearing Islamic religious clothing. A prisoner was attacked and on another occasion he threatened to “cut off the kafir’s head”, with kafir being a derogatory term for an infidel or non-believer.
It is suggested that Khan requested he be moved to Belmarsh’s segregation wing to be near Abu HamzaCredit: John Stillwell/PA
By July 2012, he was such a menace he was sent back to the specialist high security unit at Belmarsh.
It is suggested that Khan requested he be moved to Belmarsh’s segregation wing to be near Abu Hamza, the ‘hook-handed’ preacher and terrorist mastermind later extradited to the US. Again, if there was any doubt to Khan’s continuing ideology, a desire to get close to Hamza was a clear indication. In January 2013, Khan was on the move again to HMP Long Lartin in rural Worcestershire.
Aged 21, he became the Muslim leader of F-wing and threatened any Muslim who refused to wear traditional dress and take on an Islamic name. In Long Lartin, he stockpiled chemicals that he had acquired on health grounds but never had all the components needed to make a bomb. Authorities wanted to break up Khan’s network being built up at Long Lartin and within a few months, he had moved again, this time to HMP Frankland in County Durham.
At Frankland, Khan began what was to be his charm offensive.
For the first time, he told authorities he no longer held extremist views. His activities didn’t bear that out – and nobody, for now at least, was fooled. He attacked a prisoner in his cell and in the melee also struck a Church of England chaplain.
A sharp blade was found in his cell drawer and Khan moved again first to Manchester prison in January 2014 and then in June to HMP Woodhill in Buckinghamshire where he became the “Muslim enforcer”.
MI5 backs off
In February 2015, despite the litany of complaints and bad behaviour, MI5 closed its investigation, meaning he was no longer an active SOI. The security services have finite resources and deploy them to imminent threats to national security. Khan, in jail, was no longer considered a threat to national security.
The intelligence agency would no longer monitor him for the next three years until August 2018, in the months prior to his fateful release. The prison intelligence reports didn’t stop. The inquest revealed Khan’s continuing dangerous conduct.
He ran a gang in Woodhill and said that “all staff with keys are fair game”. A report into his possible terror activities in February 2016 concluded: “It’s difficult to identify any reduction in the risk of reoffending.” It was sadly prescient.
Deceiving for his beliefs
By July 2016, Khan had been transferred again, this time to HMP Whitemoor in Cambridgeshire, an hour’s drive from Learning Together’s HQ. The charity did a lot of work with Whitemoor inmates.
The governor of HMP Whitemoor, William Styles, was pursuing a Masters degree at Cambridge and knew the Learning Together founders. Extraordinarily, he told the inquest that Learning Together was rolled out to Whitemoor – a high security prison housing some of the most dangerous men in the country – because it was geographically closer to Cambridge. The jury heard that little if any consideration was given to whether Khan was right for the programme.
Intelligence reports at Whitemoor suggested improved behaviourCredit: PA
The prison intelligence reports suggest an indication of improved behaviour and the management of Khan was reduced.
It was all a con. Radicalised prisoners had begun a practice of engaging in ‘taqiyya’, a sharia command that allows Muslims to lie or deceive for the sake of their beliefs. Khan had decided on a new strategy of lying within intervention programs to show he was making progress.
Not that he would abandon his violent behaviour. Prison intelligence reports show he and another man attacked a Christian prisoner who had refused to convert, an accomplice striking the victim with a weighted sock. Khan discussed his faith with Adebolajo and a search of his cell in April 2017 revealed “significant material” including newspaper cuttings on the Islamic State.
Other incidents followed in the ensuing weeks and months but all the same by November 2017, Learning Together began its work with Khan.
Half his sentence
His release was due in the following year after he would have served half his sentence. Prison intelligence reports did not seemingly diminish the threat he posed but Learning Together had never seen them. The charity would later say it never would have invited Khan to the event at Fishmongers’ Hall had it known of his conduct in jail and the threat he posed outside.
In November 2017, he spoke all the way through the two-minute silence on Remembrance Day and by April 2018 a report rated his connection to extremism as ‘medium’ but could increase on release.
On a new wing, his activities seem to have been missed but authorities still remained concerned. “This does not mean his ideologies have changed, just that he may be behaving in a deceptively compliant manner ahead of his release,” said a report. In August 2018, with release now getting ever closer to its December date, MI5 reopened his file. Khan was again an active SOI.
His behaviour continued to improve, his plan of deceit was going well enough. In October, Khan wrote to his probation officer expressing a positive approach for the future.
Back to his “old ways”
“I am ready as ever to build my life and put this behind me,” he claimed, while at the same time telling prisoners at Friday prayers he intended to return to his “old ways” upon his release. It was intelligence that was passed to MI5 and even discussed at a final meeting of Mappa – short for multi-agency public protection arrangements – that took place on Dec 5 2018.
The intelligence was rated “low grade” and 19 days later, Khan was released from prison. It was Christmas Eve. He was subject to 22 license conditions that included wearing a tag and agreeing not to possess any devices which could connect to the internet.
He lived in approved premises in Stafford and was monitored by an inexperienced probation and offender manager police team. While he ought to have been the responsibility of the West Midlands counter-terrorist police, because Khan lived in Stafford, he was looked after by a local Prevent team, who had only managed one terrorist offender before. The inquest heard that the police offender manager had limited contact with Khan and in the eleven months after his release no new structured risk assessment was ever completed by probation.
Red flag ignored
The play Drive North, produced as part of a creative writing course in Whitemoor, found its way to MI5 in early 2019.
MI5 concluded the play was “in line with the literary works” he was producing as part of his rehabilitation and ignored the seeming obvious red flag. Probation officers barred him from attending a Learning Together conference in Cambridge in March 2019, explaining it was too soon after his release. Instead, Khan made a video describing the charity team as “his family” which was shown at the event.
His rehabilitation on the face of it was progressing. Khan joined a gym but a job at a hardware firm was declined when he revealed his terrorist convictions. He had also applied for a driving licence and to join a dump truck driving course.
Mappa refused the request, aware of the deadly assault on Nice in France in 2016 in which 86 people were killed. Data from Khan’s ankle tag showed him making trips into Stafford and then back home to Stoke to see his family.
Planning the attack
His probation officer found Khan “always cheerful in his presentation during supervision. He displays no behaviours to indicate we should be concerned for his mental health; he is always pleasant and he visits his parents each Sunday”.
But the Learning Together rehabilitation conference set for Nov 29 at Fishmongers’ Hall in the heart of the City of London gave Khan his chance.
Usman Khan at Bank Underground station on the day of his attack
A fortnight before, he received the train tickets for the London event and thereafter went about planning his attack, unseen and unobserved. Concerns were raised by Staffordshire police and the Prevent officers that Khan appeared to be “isolating himself from others”. However, on Nov 18, a joint operations team, involving MI5, Staffordshire Police Special Branch and West Midlands Police counter-terrorism unit, met to discuss whether greater surveillance of Khan was needed before he was to be closed as an SOI.
A decision to dedicate more resources to his movements, including his up and coming trip to London, was never made. A final chance to stop him was missed. Khan then bought the T-REX branded gaffer tape from a Tesco in Staffordshire which he would use in the attack to strap the knives to his hands and to create the fake suicide vest.
A CCTV image of Khan buying gaffer tape at a supermarket, which was shown in courtCredit: Metropolitan Police
On Nov 26, three days before the atrocity, he told Julia Nix, an official with the Department for Work and Pensions helping him to find a job: “I am 100 per cent positive, I do not have any terrorist thoughts at all.”
On the eve of his trip to London, he bought his weaponry. It is unclear where he bought the knives, possibly from a market stall, but he also purchased a pair of scissors, razors and eyebrow waxstrips. Detective chief inspector Dan Brown, who led the Scotland Yard investigation, told the inquest: “Cutting hair, trimming beards, is a common act of preparation for cleanliness, which is part of the act of martyrdom within extremist Islamic traditions.”
Had Khan been under surveillance such suspicious activity would likely have been picked up. Khan then visited a camping store, where he purchased a padded extra-large navy jacket, having recently bought one the size below. “I believe he has purchased this jacket in a size larger so he could hide the fake suicide belt in the attack,” said DCI Brown. Khan was ready for his deadly assault. The tragedy is, nobody in authority saw it coming.
Assistant commissioner Neil Basu, head of counter terrorism policing at the Metropolitan Police, told Mr Merritt and Miss Jones’s families that he was “so deeply sorry” for the failures in the management of the attacker and that changes were being made. “That we are making these changes after this attack will, I suspect, be of little comfort to Jack and Saskia’s family,”Mr Basu said. “The fact that, as the jury determined, there were omissions or failures in the management of the attacker and in the sharing of information and guidance by the agencies responsible, is simply unacceptable and I’m so deeply sorry we weren’t better at this in November 2019.”
He added: “The stark reality is that we can never guarantee we will stop every attack.
But I promise, we will do absolutely everything we can to try.”
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