Admin error ‘could have deprived MI5 of chance to link London Bridge attackers’

An administrative error could have deprived security services of the opportunity to link two of the London Bridge attackers, before the attack took place, an MI5 officer said.

A senior officer, identified only as Witness L, told the Old Bailey on Thursday that a request for intelligence from Italian authorities into attacker Youssef Zaghba had not been actioned.

A serious crime alert had been placed on Zaghba after he was stopped trying to fly from Bologna to Istanbul in March 2016, when he told airport officials that he was travelling “to be a terrorist” before correcting himself to “tourist”, the inquest heard.

Witness L said Italian officials had approached the intelligence service in April that year with a series of questions relating to Zaghba, but no action was taken and it was not filed on the system.

When asked why MI5 took no action, he said: “Because the request, which was a request for tracing of the type we discussed the other day, went to an incorrect addressee.”

Giving evidence shielded from public view, the officer, who is head of policy, strategy and capability in MI5’s international counter-terrorism branch, added: “It went to the wrong MI5 addressee. I can find nowhere it was filed within the MI5 records.

“I suspect this was probably a misunderstanding. I suspect the individual to whom it was sent did not understand they needed to take any action at all.

“No response was given to the Italian authorities as far as I am aware.”

But when asked if the “administrative errors” that occurred in connection with the Italian authorities’ request had deprived security services of the opportunity of linking Zaghba to fellow attacker Khuram Butt, Witness L said: “Yes, it is possible.”

He added: “So I think this is an interesting and inevitably speculative chain of events.

“Had we been interested, I suspect our first response would have been to return to the Italian authorities and to ask for more detail, because the information provided, namely that he’d arrived at an airport and said he was a terrorist, and then changed it to tourist, is unusual.

“So our first step would have been to ask the Italians for more information.

“Had they provided information of interest, I think it is possible we would consider putting him on a terrorist watch list in addition to the existing serious crime watch list.”

But Witness L said that an investigation into Zaghba would have been “unlikely” and added: “So I think active investigation would have been unlikely, but flagging as a person of interest, particularly as they came in and out of the UK border, feels more likely.”

Butt, 27, Zaghba, 22, and Rachid Redouane, 30, killed eight people and injured 48 more in a van and knife attack on June 3 2017.

They mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge before stabbing innocent bystanders at random in nearby Borough Market.

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, were all killed.

Investigators failed to identify the school where Butt and Zaghba both taught – the Ad-Deen primary school in Ilford – which was run by the wife of known extremist Sajeed Shahid.

Witness L had previously accepted that a potential investigative opportunity had been lost as well, with a failure to examine more closely the gym that Butt, Zaghba and Redouane all attended, again owned by Shahid.

The inquests continue.

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