London Bridge attack inquest told of ‘missed opportunity’ to avert atrocity
Police failures to investigate the gym attended by the London Bridge attackers and a primary school where two of them worked were “a very real missed opportunity” to stop the atrocity, an inquest has heard.
Khuram Butt attended and worked at the Ummah Fitness Centre in Ilford which was run by a suspected extremist Sajeel Shahid, the Old Bailey heard.
He also worked at a primary school run by Shahid, who was accused of helping to set up a terrorist training camp in Pakistan attended by one of the July 7 bombers and being involved with extremist group Al-Muhajiroun.
Fellow attackers Rachid Redouane, 30, and Youssef Zaghba, 22, were also regulars at the gym, although police investigating Butt were not aware that it was a “significant” location.
Butt worked most days at Ad-Deen Primary School in Ilford, but police had been given intelligence that he was employed at other schools and failed to discover where he actually worked. Zaghba also volunteered at the school.
The trio killed eight people and injured 48 others in a van and knife attack at London Bridge and Borough Market on June 3, 2017.
They mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge before rampaging through Borough Market, stabbing innocent people at random.
Xavier Thomas, 45, Christine Archibald, 30, Sara Zelenak, 21, Sebastien Belanger, 36, James McMullan, 32, Kirsty Boden, 28, Alexandre Pigeard, 26, and Ignacio Echeverria, 39, died in the attack, which lasted less than 10 minutes.
A senior counter-terrorism police officer, identified only as Witness M, continued giving evidence to the inquests into their deaths on Wednesday.
Gareth Patterson QC, representing six of the victims’ families, suggested the police failure to look at the gym and the school was “a very real missed opportunity in the months leading up to the attack”.
Witness M said: “There was no intelligence that suggested the gym was significant prior to the attack and we followed the intelligence around a number of schools and it was uncorroborated.”
Asked if he believed opportunities to stop the terror plot were missed, he said: “There is nothing I could look back on and say ‘this was a missed opportunity around a significant disruption’, nor was there anything that we had in our possession at the time that indicated any attack was being planned.”
Mr Patterson suggested extremist material found on Butt’s phone and laptop when he was arrested for fraud in 2016 showed he had an “obsession” with Isis and a willingness to die.
The material included images of Isis executions and suicide bombers, a terrorist propaganda magazine Dabiq, pictures of Isis captives with guns held to their head, and an image of a man with a spade embedded in his face.
There was also a home video of Butt cutting the throat of a cow and comparing it to the massacre of 600 Jewish men.
WhatsApp messages had been exchanged with the extremist preacher Ahmed Musa Jibril asking if people have visions of the future before death, and Jibril suggested he would see Butt in paradise.
Witness M said: “This rhetoric, this conversation, this mindset we see right the way across the spectrum of all the subjects of interest we deal with. None of this material shows that he was planning for an attack or that any offence had been committed.”
The court was shown a CCTV still of the three attackers all meeting at Butt’s flat in March 2017, and Mr Patterson gave details of repeated phone contact between the three.
Analysis of MI5 surveillance of the gym after the attack showed that Butt may have also tried to buy a gun at this time.
Under cross-examination by Dominic Adamson, for the family of Xavier Thomas, Witness M agreed that the intelligence-led approach to terrorism investigations had failed to identify the plot.
Mr Adamson asked Witness M: “Are you saying that this attack was unstoppable?”
The officer replied: “No. I don’t think I’ve ever said that and I don’t think any of the reports that came out subsequently have said that. It’s not one single factor, it’s a combination.”
Mr Adamson asked why investigators had not looked into the fact that Shahid was linked to the Ad-Deen Primary School.
He said: “The impression is that unless information is handed to you, you are not making proactive inquiries into locations which we now know are very significant. I suggest to you any reasonable investigator would have thought they were significant at the time.”
Witness M replied: “We did make proactive inquiries based on the intelligence we had.”