London terror suspect Usman Khan, 28, was well-known to authorities and intelligence services prior to carrying out a terror attack on London Bridge on Friday in which he killed two people and injured three in a stabbing spree. He was intercepted by members of the public and subsequently shot dead by police.
Khan was out on early release as of December 2018, having been convicted in 2012 as part of an al-Qaeda linked group that was accused of plotting to target major sites including Parliament and the US embassy in London and kill individuals, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, then the mayor of London, the dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and two rabbis who have not been named.
The plot was described in the British media as a potential Mumbai-style attack, in reference to the 2008 coordinated terror attacks in Mumbai, India where terrorists from a Pakistan-based group killed over 150 people in 12 sites over the course of four days. Among the sites targeted was the Chabad House in the city where terrorists killed Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries, and four other Israeli and American visitors. The couple’s son, two years old at the time, survived the attack due to his Indian nanny.
Britain’s counterterrorism police commissioner Neil Basu said in a statement this weekend that Khan “was known to authorities, having been convicted in 2012 for terrorism offenses.”
“Clearly, a key line of inquiry now is to establish how he came to carry out this attack,” Basu said.
Police on Saturday were searching an apartment block in Stafford, 150 miles (240 kilometers) northwest of London, for clues. Khan was believed to have lived in the area after his release from prison. Police also conducted searches in Stoke-on-Trent where Khan was born.
Khan was released early from a 16-year sentence, having admitted to a lesser charge of engaging in conduct for the preparation of acts of terrorism. He had been secretly taped plotting attacks and talking about martyrdom as a possibility with his co-conspirators. The plot also involved building a terrorist training camp on land in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir owned by Khan’s family, the British media reported.
During the arrest operation, a “target list” was found at the home of one of the suspects which listed the names and addresses of Johnson, the two rabbis and US embassy. The police also recovered sketches of what was believed to be a car bomb, the Telegraph reported at the time.
In Khan’s 2012 sentencing, the presiding judge noted that he and two other accomplices were in his judgement “more serious jihadis than the others” and said he believed “these offenders would remain, even after a lengthy term of imprisonment, of such a significant risk that the public could not be adequately protected by their being managed on license in the community, subject to conditions.”
The judge said Khan and the other suspects were involved in a “serious, long-term venture in terrorism.”
While in jail, Khan asked to be enrolled in a deradicalization program to “learn Islam and its teachings” and “live my life as a good Muslim,” according to a letter he wrote at the time and which aired Saturday on ITV news.
It is not yet known whether he took part in any deradicalization program used by British authorities to try and reform known jihadis.
Khan and his accomplices also had links to radical preacher Anjem Choudary, one of the highest-profile faces of radical Islam in Britain. A mobile phone seized at the time contained material related to a banned group that Choudary founded. The preacher was released from prison in 2018 but is under heavy surveillance and a curfew.
Several people who attended Choudary’s rallies when he was under no controls have been convicted of attacks, including the two al-Qaeda-inspired killers who ran over British soldier Lee Rigby and stabbed him to death in 2013.
On Saturday, the Islamic State terror group said Khan carried out Friday’s attack “in its name.”
The Islamic State issued the announcement on its news agency Amaq published on messaging app Telegram. The group said Khan was “responding to calls to target the nationals of coalition countries,” in reference to a call by former IS spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani to followers around the world to carry out acts of violence using any means possible. Al-Adnani was killed in a 2016 airstrike.
Khan’s attack began Friday afternoon at an event near London Bridge for the rehabilitation of prisoners.
Khan is said to have started ranting and waving knives at the Cambridge University conference on prisoner rehabilitation as part of a program called “Learning Together” at Fishmongers’ Hall at the north end of London Bridge, as others tried to intervene. He killed Jack Merritt, 25, a course leader of the program, and a woman who has not yet been named.
Khan was wearing what turned out to be a fake explosives device at the time.
Bystanders helped disarm and restrain Khan after the killings until police arrived. Video footage showed a number of people, one with a fire extinguisher and another armed a narwhal tusk, taking Khan to the ground before the arrival of police. The man with the tusk was identified as a chef from Poland who worked in the hall’s kitchen.
Basu said Saturday that authorities believe “the attack began inside before he left the building and proceeded onto the bridge.”
The British government on Saturday vowed a “full review” as the justice system came under intense public scrutiny following the announcement that Khan was a convicted terrorist.
The Parole Board said it had played no role in Khan’s early release. It said the convict “appears to have been released automatically on license [as required by law], without ever being referred to the board.”
Basu said Saturday afternoon that the conditions of Khan’s release had been complied with. He didn’t spell out what those conditions were or why they failed to prevent him from killing two people.
The automatic release program apparently means no agency was given the task of determining if Khan still believed in radical views he had embraced when he was first imprisoned.
Johnson, who visited the scene of the attack Saturday, said he had “long argued” that it was a “mistake to allow serious and violent criminals to come out of prison early.” He said the criminal justice system “simply isn’t working.”
The former head of Britain’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, Chris Phillips, said it is unreasonable to ask police and security services to keep the country safe while at the same time letting people out of prison when they are still a threat.
“We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, letting convicted, known, radicalized jihadi criminals walk about our streets,” he said on Saturday.