Usman Khan and eight other aspiring jihadis, inspired by al-Qaeda, plotted to get combat training in Pakistan and gain experience carrying out attacks in Kashmir in rehearsal for launching Mumbai-style atrocities in Britain.
The wish-list of targets, their 2012 trial heard, included the US embassy, the Stock Exchange, the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, the London Eye, synagogues, and the headquarters of the Church of Scientology in London, as well as pubs and public toilets in the Stoke-on-Trent area.
The group was tracked early by MI5, who bugged their homes and cars, and arrested them before they could carry out any attacks.
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Sentencing them in 2012, Mr Justice Wilkie described what unfolded as a “serious, long-term venture in terrorism that could have resulted in atrocities in Britain”. He added that Khan and two others appeared to be the “more serious” terrorists in the group.
The question now is how despite of all that, 28-year-old Khan was free and able to go on a rampage armed with knives and wearing a fake suicide vest, spreading terror and stabbing several people, killing two of them, at London Bridge.
Khan was freed under licence in December 2018 from a sentence that had been reduced on appeal. The Independent understands that, as a recently released prisoner, he was being monitored by MI5 but not kept under constant surveillance. Such monitoring involves a number of security measures rather than a target being tracked at all times.
There was no reason for a round-the-clock watch, say security officials, because there had been no intelligence to suggest that he had returned to terrorism.
“It is very difficult to stop someone from going out and buying a knife and carrying out an attack,” said a senior security official. “There was nothing to indicate that he was seeking to carry out an attack and we obviously deploy resources on the level of risk faced.
“We have the same situation with jihadis returning from abroad; it would be very difficult to stop them using knives or cars to carry out attacks.
“The various aspects of the sentencing is a matter of public record, these are issues that have been decided by the courts following legal procedures. However, we do face a situation where a number of prisoners may be freed in partial completion of their sentence in the near future.”
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Searches of property and interviews with those who knew Khan does not indicate at this stage, say security officials, that he was part of a wider conspiracy, and no jihadi manifesto outlining his action has been found so far. But, they caution, this may change as the investigation continues.
The attack has quickly led to political accusations and recriminations, especially coming as it did two weeks before the general election.
There is every expectation that Donald Trump will have something to say about this and the state of security in Britain when he comes to London for the 70th Nato leaders’ conference in the coming week.
Sadiq Khan, the Labour mayor, whom the US president has castigated more than once for supposedly allowing London to descend into a state of lawlessness, blamed a lack of resources due to Tory cuts. He said: “You can’t disaggregate terrorism and security from cuts made to resources of the police, of probation, and the tools that judges have.”
Security minister Brandon Lewis did not want to discuss whether the attack was the result of failure by authorities. He refused repeatedly to comment on the specifics of what had happened, but said greater assessment was needed of the sentences given to violent criminals.
Mr Lewis maintained that it would be “inappropriate and dangerous” to speculate on how Khan had been able to arm himself even though he was on licence from prison. He told the BBC: “I think it is right that we do have to look again at the sentences … The prime minister has … made that point previously and made it very clearly last night. We will want to move very swiftly because our first priority is the safety of the people around the country.”
Khan was in fact freed under home secretary Sajid Javid under parole rules brought in by another Tory home secretary, Theresa May.
When sentenced by Mr Justice Wilkie in February 2012, Khan had been handed an imprisonment for public protection (IPP) sentence with a minimum term of eight years. This indeterminate sentence was quashed by the Court of Appeal in April 2013 and replaced with a 16-year sentence with an extended licence period of five years.
During the appeal hearing for the sentence, Lord Justice Leveson said: “There is no doubt that anyone convicted of such an offence could be legitimately considered dangerous. There is an argument for concluding that anyone convicted of such an offence should be incentivised to demonstrate that he can safely be released; such a decision is then better left to the Parole Board for consideration, proximate in time to the date when release became possible.”
The Parole Board, however, wanted to stress that it had nothing to do with the release. It said in a statement: “Given the seriousness of this attack, it is understandable that there is speculation about the attacker’s release from prison.
“The Parole Board can confirm it had no involvement with the release of the individual identified as the attacker, who appears to have been released automatically on licence (as required by law), without ever being referred to the board.”
There are reports that one reason Khan was freed was because he had agreed to wear an ankle bracelet. In any event, Khan had spent 408 days on remand and this was taken into account when considering his release date. He was eligible for release after serving half of his 16-year jail term, less the time he had already spent on remand.
Khan’s solicitor, Vajahat Sharif, has claimed that his client had asked to be included in a deradicalisation programme while in prison after becoming disillusioned with Islamic extremism. He told The Guardian that extremists may have targeted him to be “regroomed” after being released.
Robert Emerson, a security analyst, said there will be a “lot of confusion in the public mind over the rules under which those convicted for violent terrorist offences are freed. What is needed is clarity from the government and a procedure on early release which is more standardised and transparent.”