Despite warnings, London attackers slipped by

Latest revelations have placed May under intense scrutiny
Khuram Shazad Butt (from left), Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba.
Khuram Shazad Butt (from left), Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba.

LONDON — Islamic State propaganda had been found in the bag of one attacker while he was trying to board a flight in Italy. An FBI informant said he had raised alarms about the second attacker two years ago. The third attacker, denied asylum in Britain, appeared to have sneaked in from Ireland.

The warning signs about the three assailants in a white van who smashed and stabbed their way through a trendy London neighborhood tumbled into the open Tuesday, compounding the pressure on the police and Prime Minister Theresa May to explain them.

What has become clear since the Saturday night assault is that again and again, the young men who killed seven people before they were shot to death by the police had been reported to law enforcement authorities, bumping into what should have been the country’s security net, only for those signals to be played down, ignored or missed.

The latest revelations have placed May, a former home secretary who was in charge of counterterrorism for six years before taking over as prime minister last year, under intense scrutiny two days before a general election. Even her own foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a former London mayor, voiced the question many here are asking.

“How on earth could we have let this guy or possibly more through the net — what happened?” he asked in an interview on Sky News.

Some of the missed warnings were especially glaring because they came from the very people the British government had entrusted with identifying extremists.

Usama Hasan, a former Islamic extremist who works with the police to help de-radicalize others, said he had a physical altercation in a London park less than a year ago with one of the assailants, Khuram Butt.

Butt’s brother, Saad, who did paid work for the police on counterextremism issues and was estranged from the assailant, missed signs of how dangerous his brother’s extremism had become.

Other warnings had also been raised about Khuram Shazad Butt, 27, who held odd jobs, including at KFC and a six-month stint as a customer service trainee for the London subway system that ended in October. His second child was born weeks before the attack, neighbors said.

In 2015, an FBI informant, Jesse Morton, wrote a report to his handler in the United States, identifying Butt as a person to watch because of what Morton described as his rising role in extremist chat rooms run by Al Muhajiroun, an organization banned in Britain because of its sprawling links to terrorism.

“My handler got back to me and said it was ‘excellent work’ and forwarded it to the head office,” said Morton, a former al-Qaida recruiter from New York who served prison time on terrorism charges before recanting and agreeing to work undercover for law enforcement.

Morton, who recently started Parallel Networks, an organization combating extremism, said it was unclear to him whether his FBI report had been forwarded to British officials. A spokesman for the FBI, Andrew C. Ames, said the agency had no comment.

Even excluding the FBI report, plenty of alarms were ringing for the British authorities about Butt.

Neighbors and friends noticed his behavior, including a mother of three who lived in the same apartment building as Butt in Barking, a suburb in eastern London.

The mother, Erica Gasparri, was quoted by The Guardian as saying she confronted Butt two years ago after he had tried to convert her son to Islam. When she found him in a local park, she recalled, Butt said he was ready to do “in the name of Allah what needs to be done, including killing my own mother.”

Gasparri said she had called a police hotline and passed on photographs she had taken of him but never got a call back.

Meanwhile, in Italy, authorities allowed the second attacker, Youssef Zaghba, to walk past them last year at an airport security check, even though he was carrying Islamic State propaganda. Zaghba, 22, an Italian of Moroccan descent, was en route to Syria to fight for the Islamic State when he was stopped in March at the airport in Bologna. He was traveling on a one-way ticket, and the authorities found Islamic State material on one of his electronic devices, said two former European intelligence officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Giuseppe Amato, the chief prosecutor in Bologna, told a different account to Radio 25 in Italy, saying that Zaghba had been stopped en route to Istanbul because he was carrying nothing more than a knapsack, which raised suspicion.

“He told the security guard, who checked him — and then he corrected himself — that he was going to be a terrorist,” Amato said.

Zaghba was arrested and his belongings were confiscated, but after a judge charged with verifying the accusations against him found there were no grounds to hold him, they were returned, “so the contents on his device” were not examined, Amato said.

Still, Amato said that Zaghba had been singled out as a “suspicious person” to the British authorities.

“We did everything we could do,” he said. “But there was no proof he was a terrorist.”

The third attacker, identified as Rachid Redouane, 30, was denied asylum in Britain in 2009, according to news reports, and moved instead to Ireland, where he married, worked as a pastry chef and lived for a time in Dublin. He apparently managed to sneak into Britain through the porous Irish border to join the other attackers.

Of all the warning signs about Butt, the most detailed account was offered in an interview Tuesday with Hasan, the member of the network of former extremists and the head of Islamic studies at the Quilliam foundation.

Last July 6, Hasan said, he ran into Butt at a Muslim family fair in East London. He was standing beside a fairground ride that his 9-year-old son had just mounted, when Butt, wearing a traditional Muslim robe and headdress, assailed him with abuse: “You take money from the government to work against Muslims. You spy on Muslims,” he raged. “You are a murtadd,” an epithet used by the Islamic State.

Then he tried to charge Hasan.

“He ran straight for me with his face contorted in hatred,” Hasan recalled.

A fight ensued with multiple people, including Butt’s wife, dressed in a face-covering veil. Hasan reported the episode to the police, emailing them photos of Butt that one of his family members had taken on a cellphone.

He told them Butt had displayed all the outward signs of a radicalized political Islamist he knew so well from his own past in radical circles and more recent de-radicalization work: the combination of a pious Islamic dress and long unkempt beard with the angry demeanor and the rehearsed lines.

“I told them I was certain these guys were Al Muhajiroun,” Hasan said. “I said they are a national security threat. They need to be monitored.”

The police constable on duty assured him that his concerns had been passed on to the Metropolitan Police’s counterterrorism unit, SO15, Hasan recalled.

Six months later, in January, Hasan said, he received a phone call. The police had identified Butt, but no charges were brought. “I am sure this man will sooner or later be arrested in some terrorism plot,” he recalled telling students in May at a lecture at Cambridge University.

On Tuesday morning, after having seen photographs of Butt in the news media, Hasan emailed the constable who had dealt with his assault case.

“Could you please confirm that my assailant in the above case (CAD 7943 06JUL16) is the same Khuram Butt who was one of the London Bridge terrorists over the weekend?” he wrote.

Reporting was contributed by Sewell Chan, Steven Erlanger and Camilla Schick from London, Eric Schmitt and Adam Goldman from Washington, and Gaia Pianigiani from Rome.

Categories: -News-

Leave a Reply