The inquest into the murder of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt by Islamist terrorist Usman Khan has revealed a collision of arrogance, hubris, naïveté and incompetence from which the two graduates arguably paid with their lives.
Saskia and Jack were attached to a prison education programme supported by Cambridge University called ‘Learning Together’. The scheme, which appears not to have been formally evaluated, inspected or risk assessed by its creators – and had no clear rehabilitation purpose – placed criminology students from the university alongside prisoners on a study programme. In late 2017, at High Security HMP Whitemoor, Khan – an active threat to prison staff – was allowed to join this group. He later became a ‘poster boy’ for the organisation, even appearing in promotional videos.
The decision by Learning Together and the prison authorities to allow his participation launched predator and victims on a fatal trajectory. On 29 November 2019, 11 months after his release from prison, Khan attended an event to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the scheme at London’s Fishmongers’ Hall. There, Khan repaid the idealism and commitment of his young mentors by stabbing Jones and Merritt to death. He was subsequently shot dead by police on London Bridge. The police and security services say the pair were deliberately targeted because of their relationship with Learning Together.
Could these murders have been prevented? The painful evidence presented to the inquest at Guildhall over the last five weeks suggests it is plausible to think so. The testimony paints a damning indictment of our current terrorist risk management culture and practice.
When Khan was locked up for eight years over an Islamist plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange, there was little doubt of the danger he posed. He entered the prison system as a high risk category A terrorist. In numerical terms, this put him in the top 0.1 per cent of our current prison population in terms of how dangerous he was. Most long-term prisoners travel down through the security categories as their behaviour improves and their risk reduces, spending time in Category D ‘open’ conditions before they can be trusted for release. Not Khan.
He left prison as officially dangerous as he went in. In fact, a forensic psychologist at the prison – one of the very few who appreciated his lethal potential – stated in her largely ignored screening assessment that Khan was becoming even more risky.
The police investigation into the attack, Operation Bamadan, revealed that in his eight years of prison custody – virtually all of his adult life – Khan’s prison intelligence assessments showed he was ‘consistently’ involved in activities as a radical Islamist. The list of concerns in his 2,000-page security file is extraordinary, ranging from planned extremist assaults on staff to forced religious conversions, to the manufacture of an improvised explosive device. He was, by any reasonable measure, an active and committed extremist behind bars.
Yet HMP Whitemoor’s senior leadership still deemed him suitable to join the Learning Together course. They didn’t even have the excuse that he had abandoned his toxic worldview. In fact, they were showered with information suggesting quite the opposite.
Amazingly, during his time on the course, intelligence was generated that labelled him a ‘senior terrorist offender’. And still, no one in charge thought letting an unrepentant Islamist continue to participate in a course where he had access to vulnerable targets was a bad idea. Certainly not the course’s founders, one of whom repeatedly denied that terrorist prisoners should be excluded on the basis of their offence.
Prison governor, Will Styles, even went on to support a grant application for Learning Together in early 2019 that cited Khan’s ‘transformation’ as a result of the project. At least £214,000 of public money was poured into this experimental project, with little evidence of value or scrutiny. It was alleged in the inquest that public protection and common sense were surrendered because, in the words of counsel for one of the families, the ‘fairy dust’ of the Cambridge University connection had left senior managers in one of our biggest terrorist jails, who should have been making hard-nosed security decisions, ‘giddy’ with excitement. It’s impossible to disagree with this verdict.
When Khan was released from HMP Woodhill in December 2018, two bits of critical intelligence emerged from the security assessments: that he was preparing to return to ‘his old ways’; and that he had the ‘aspiration’ to carry out another attack.
The veracity of this intelligence is contested. But what is now clear is that it was never fully acted upon. In particular, the awfully prescient second attack theory, judged to be ‘low’ quality by MI5, was not properly shared with those responsible for controlling the continuing risk he presented to the community. This intelligence entered the overwrought pipework of the multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA), which promptly failed to convert it into measures that should have prevented Khan from ever attending Fishmongers’ Hall, let alone allow him to travel into central London, carrying a fake bomb, unescorted.
The alphabet soup of agencies and micro-groups supposedly co-ordinating Khan’s risk management worked in silos. The information that Khan was considering another attack, which came from the security service MI5, was shared with some local police, but not with the lead agency in Khan’s public protection, the Probation Service. Overworked, under resourced and inexperienced people, some at junior levels, observed status-conscious Khan descend into isolation, anger and frustration at life after release. The reality of his constrained and thwarted existence was very far from the glimpse he had into the world of top academia. This may well have had an influence on the monstrous finale to his life.
Probation staff were left in the dark about covert MI5 and counter-terrorist police operations planned for the days before his attack. The aim of these was to test their horribly misplaced theory that Khan was no longer a risk to national security. In the event, these exercises never took place. We will never know whether their findings might have prevented Khan from coming to London on that fateful day.
In evidence given at the inquest from behind a screen, a senior MI5 intelligence officer said: ‘The most likely form of attack at the moment is a low sophistication attack carried out at short notice’ by a ‘lone actor.’ In other words, a strikingly similar method of attack as the one used by Usman Khan.
Could someone like Khan carry out another terrorist attack on the streets of London? There are a significant number of terrorists already in the pipeline for release from our prisons. The inquest into the deaths of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt makes another attack seem worryingly plausible.
We will be told in the days to come how much risk management of terror offenders has improved since the end of 2019. Can we be confident about this? In January 2020, at HMP Whitemoor, an officer was very nearly murdered by two prisoners dressed in fake suicide belts and carrying improvised knives. This is supposed to be one of Europe’s most secure prisons. This further evidence of catastrophic operational security failures suggests the prison service has completely lost its way in its primary task to keep society safe. Pandering to extremely dangerous terrorists to burnish woke credentials cannot be the new normal.
As for the attack at Fishmongers’ Hall, Usman Khan bears sole responsibility for this atrocity. Given the quality of his risk management, so painfully exposed by the inquest, it is quite likely that had he been denied access to these victims, he might have sought others out to satisfy his death cult ideology. We can’t know for sure. Either way, acceptance of responsibility for mistakes from any of the agencies involved in this catastrophe are dispiritingly hard to find across the thousands of pages of evidence at the inquest. We can only hope the coroner will require them to take action; there are more Usman Khan’s in the pipeline.
The best tribute ministers could now pay to the sacrifice of these two bright young people – the best of us – is the replacement of the institutional dog’s breakfast of multi-agency risk management arrangements that failed them. A single executive terrorist risk management authority must take its place. The current system is plainly unfit for purpose; it fell apart under scrutiny by counsel for both victims.
On the first day of the inquest, a statement was read on behalf of the family of Saskia Jones, just 23 when she died. They said: ‘It would be her hope that no other family is devastated and heartbroken again in similar circumstances.’ The moral challenge to the Government could not be clearer.
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