LONDON—A frenzied knife attack by a known terrorist who was let out of prison early on parole was halted by a posse of Londoners that included a convicted killer on day release.
The first deadly terror attack in Britain for two years spilled out of a Cambridge University event on rehabilitating ex-cons. A university spokesman told The Daily Beast that the terrorist Usman Khan had been invited to the event, but could not confirm reports that he had addressed the symposium, which included former prisoners and prison staff.
A more detailed account of the attack emerged Saturday as the Islamic State claimed that one of its attackers carried out the stabbing, the group’s Amaq news agency reported. The announcement didn’t provide any evidence for the claim.
In response, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that prisoners convicted of terrorism offenses should not have access to early release. “I think that the practice of automatic, early release where you cut a sentence in half and let really serious, violent offenders out early simply isn’t working, and you’ve some very good evidence of how that isn’t working, I am afraid, with this case,” he said.
In fact, the law has been tightened several times—and automatic early release for those on long sentences was stopped in 2015—but Khan was convicted in 2012, and therefore subject to earlier legislation.
Khan, 28, was wearing a tracking device on his ankle and a hoax suicide belt around his waist when he walked up the grand staircase inside the historic Fishmongers’ Hall, pulled out two knives, and threatened to blow up the building.
He was run out of the event by attendees grabbing makeshift weapons to confront the killer, who had already inflicted fatal injuries on two people and wounded several more. One man picked up a fire extinguisher, another pulled the unicorn-like tusk of a narwhal off the wall and gave chase.
Khan fled onto London Bridge with the avenging conference guests in hot pursuit. The man with the antique whale cudgel was identified by The Times as a Polish chef called Luckasz, who suffered lacerations in the attack. “Being stabbed didn’t stop him giving him a beating,” a colleague who did not want to be named told the paper.
Some of the others who turned on the killer reportedly were ex-cons attending the event.
They sprayed him in the face with the fire extinguisher and managed to force him to the ground even though he was flailing at them with knives that were taped to his wrists. Several people held him down while police cars raced to the scene.
A man named James Ford grabbed one of the terrorist’s knives and carried it to safety, staggering south across the bridge away from the melee and warning clueless pedestrians to back away from a potential explosion.
As cellphone footage spread across social media and onto global news networks, the man was labeled a hero. Some of those watching the video, however, were appalled by what they saw.
Angela Cox, 65, received a phone call from police liaison officers telling her to switch on the TV. She thought the man who had disarmed the terrorist was still in prison.
Ford had been convicted of the brutal murder of her niece in 2004. He approached the 21-year-old, who was said to have the mental age of a 15-year-old, in an area of woodland and slit her throat. The judge at the time said: “What you did was an act of wickedness. You clearly have an interest in the macabre and also an obsession with death including murder by throat cutting.”
He was out of prison on day release on Friday, reportedly to attend the University of Cambridge Criminology department’s “Learning Together” event, although a spokesman was unable to confirm.
“He murdered a disabled girl. He is not a hero,” said Cox. “They let him out without even telling us. It was a hell of a shock.”
The authorities will also have to explain why Khan was allowed out of prison to murder at least two people—one man and one woman who have not yet been named. In 2012, he was convicted of plotting to carry out terror attacks in London and set up a terror training camp on land owned by his family in Pakistan.
The judge said Khan, who was just 19 at the time, was one of the ringleaders of a small British terror network that followed the teachings of U.S.-born al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki. The eight men, who had been tracked for months by MI5, were convicted on terror offenses including a plot to blow up the London Stock Exchange—they also had a target list that included the U.S. Embassy and the home address of Boris Johnson, who is now prime minister.
Five of them were given conventional jail sentences, but the judge said Khan and two of his colleagues were so dangerous that they should be locked up indefinitely under Imprisonment for Public Protection legislation.
“They were about the long term business of establishing and operating a terrorist military training facility in Pakistan, on land owned by the family of Usman Khan to which British recruits, whom they would recruit, would go to receive training,” the judge said. “Furthermore it was envisaged by them all that ultimately they, and the other recruits may return to the UK as trained and experienced terrorists available to perform terrorist attacks in this country.”
His ruling that they should remain in custody until they were no longer deemed a threat was quashed by the court of appeal in 2013. Britain’s head of counterterror policing Neil Basu said late on Friday night that Khan was released last year. The Times reported that he had agreed to wear an electronic monitoring device and live under restrictions including a curfew at his home in Staffordshire in the West Midlands.
He would likely have told the officials monitoring his movements that he was traveling down to London to take part in the rehabilitation event “celebrating five years of Learning Together.”
Khan had just taken part in a workshop on storytelling and creative writing when he revealed his true motivation for taking part in the event on the banks of the Thames.
Professor Anthony Glees, the director of the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, who contributed to the parliamentary Homeland Security Group, said it was clear that the authorities and the academics who wanted to help had failed to identify the true scale of the threat from this man.
“That is a deep irony, the do-gooder culture in universities actually gave him the opportunity; how daft was that?” he said to The Daily Beast. “Once a jihadist always a jihadist.”