Questions over how London Bridge terrorist was freed to strike

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Metropolitan Police commissioner Cressida Dick has vowed to establish how a man convicted of an Islamist terror plot was able to kill two people and injure three others in a frenzied knife attack in central London.

Dame Cressida was speaking on a visit to the site of Friday’s attack at Fishmongers’ Hall on London Bridge as the father of Jack Merritt, a 25-year-old course co-ordinator at the University of Cambridge, named him as one of the dead.

The attacker, Usman Khan, 28, had been released from prison on licence in December 2018 and was wearing a monitoring tag. He was one of nine people convicted in 2012 of involvement in a plot inspired by al-Qaeda that included plans to plant a bomb at the London Stock Exchange and set up a terrorist training camp.

Questions on Saturday centred on the circumstances of Khan’s release from prison, how well he had been monitored and why he was allowed to travel from his home in Stafford, in the West Midlands, to attend the Cambridge university-organised event where he began his attack.

“Our teams are working very fast,” Dame Cressida told reporters at the scene. “We believe that this person as far as we can tell was acting alone and we will continue to investigate the circumstances that led to this moment.”

Boris Johnson used a visit to London Bridge to underline an argument the Conservative party had been making even before Friday’s attack, that prisoners should not automatically be eligible for release on licence halfway through their sentences.

“I’ve said for a long time now that I think the practice of automatic early release, where we cut a sentence in half and let really serious and violent offenders out early, simply isn’t working,” the prime minister said. “I think you’ve had some very good evidence of how that isn’t working, I’m afraid, with this case.”

Khan had been sentenced in 2012 to 16 years imprisonment but was released on licence in December last year, having served eight years including time on remand.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said: “I think there is also a question about what the Probation Office were doing — were they involved at all?

“Whether the Parole Board should have been involved in deciding whether or not he should have been allowed to be released from prison in the first place, and also what happened in prison?”

Brandon Lewis, security minister, had earlier said on Radio 4’s Today programme that the conditions placed on Khan after his release would be one of the points examined in the police investigation.

Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor and a member of the opposition Labour party, said the police’s ability to combat terror had been hit by funding cuts. He also said he had opposed the decision to end indeterminate jail sentences of the kind that Khan was initially given.

This undated photo provided by West Midlands Police shows Usman Khan. UK counterterrorism police are searching for clues into an attack that left two people dead and three injured near London Bridge. Police said Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, Khan, who was imprisoned six years for terrorism offenses before his release last year stabbed several people in London on Friday, Nov. 29, before being tackled by members of the public and shot dead by officers on the London Bridge. (West Midlands Police via AP)
Undated photo of Usman Khan provided by West Midlands Police

Khan was initially sentenced to an indeterminate sentence for public protection — a measure introduced by the Labour government in 2003.

Mr Lewis told Today that funding for counter-terrorism police had been maintained amid police spending cuts. However, the mayor said other functions, such as community policing, were important in combating terror. “Cuts have consequences,” he said.

Jack Merritt’s father, David, identified his son as one of the dead on Saturday on Twitter, although the tweets later disappeared. Mr Merritt wrote that his son would not have wanted the attack to be used as a pretext for imposing more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily.

Jack Merritt, 25, a Cambridge graduate, was a co-ordinator of Learning Together, a project based at Cambridge university that brings together prisoners and higher education institutions. The project organised an event on Friday at Fishmongers’ Hall, a historic building on London Bridge, at which Usman Khan was an attendee.

Police have said that Khan started his attack inside the hall before heading out on to London Bridge, where he was first confronted by members of the public and then shot dead by police officers. London Bridge was also the scene of a deadly terror attack just five days before the June 2017 election. 

Map showing how the events of the London Bridge shooting unfoldedUsman Khan attends event at Fishmongers’ Hall, where police believe the knife attack beganAttacker proceeds on to London Bridge, where he was restrained by members of the public Khan confronted and shot by police officers

Political party leaders suspended their campaigning efforts after the attack. A campaign visit by Mr Johnson has been cancelled, as has an NHS summit Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was due to hold in Yorkshire. Labour said Mr Corbyn would resume campaigning on Saturday afternoon. The Liberal Democrats cancelled their Stop Brexit rally in London. 

The Ministry of Justice, which oversees the National Probation Service, which was supervising Khan, declined to comment on its handling of his case.

Pictures published on Saturday showed police at an address in Stafford, 120 miles from London. At the time of his conviction, Khan was described as being from Stoke-on-Trent, around 20 miles from Stafford.

At the time of the 2012 convictions, Anjem Choudary, a highly controversial Islamist preacher, said six of the nine plotters, including Khan, had been his students. The leader of the 2017 London Bridge attack, Khuram Butt, also had links with Choudary.

Police setting up barriers to maintain the integrity of the site at a three-storey block of flats in Woverhampton Road, Stafford, where a property is being searched by police following yesterday's stabbing attacks in London. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 30, 2019. See PA story POLICE LondonBridge. Photo credit should read: Jacob King/PA Wire
Police search the address in Stafford © PA

Friday’s incident comes only weeks after the Home Office downgraded the UK’s terror threat level, which estimates the risk of a terror attack, from “severe” to “substantial”, the first such shift in five years.

Dame Cressida said there would be increased patrols by armed officers over the coming days.

Additional reporting by Andrew Bounds.

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