LONDON—Embarrassed British officials were scrambling for answers on Monday night when it emerged that one of the terrorists who murdered seven people in the London Bridge attack was an open and unashamed extremist. Indeed, he was linked to Britain’s most notorious pro-jihadi group, which has been the focus of counter-terror investigations for more than a decade.
Khuram Butt, 27, had been investigated as recently as 2015 by security officials who deemed him unworthy of further inquiry because they found no evidence of attack planning.
On Saturday night he took part in a terrorist rampage through central London that targeted innocent people who were out eating and drinking with friends.
Like Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester two weeks ago, Butt had been added to the list of 23,000 jihadi extremists who officials consider potential terrorist attackers, but the investigation went no further.
Members of the security community have long warned that an increase in funding for MI5 and the police intelligence-led units is needed if officers are to monitor more of these possible killers. At present officials say they can closely monitor no more than 3,000, while Scotland Yard say they are investigating 500 individuals at any one time.
Mark Rowley, Britain’s top terror cop, said on Monday that they were re-examining their earlier investigation into Butt in light of the massacre.
A second killer, Italian citizen Youssef Zaghba, should have been on the British authorities' radar as Italy had prevented him traveling to Syria, found ISIS material on his phone, and added him to the European watchlist. Another of the killers was named as Rachid Redouane, who was not known to the authorities.
There is no doubt Butt, a father of two who lived in Barking, East London, was well-known to the authorities. Two members of the public have come forward to tell the media that they had recently raised the alarm about his behavior.
Butt was so brazen in his crazed ideology that he agreed to be filmed as part of a television documentary that was broadcast last year called The Jihadis Next Door. In the Channel 4 show he was seen unfurling an ISIS flag in Regents Park and confronting police officers.
Mohammed Shafiq, the chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, told The Daily Beast that he had been part of another confrontation with Butt that had resulted in police involvement.
Shafiq, who is a regular media commentator, was giving broadcast interviews on a patch of grass called College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament on the day after Fusilier Lee Rigby was murdered by religious fanatics just outside his barracks in 2013.
“Khuram Butt shouted out, ‘You're a murtad,’ which means you're a traitor in Arabic—it’s the term ISIS use to declare people non-Muslims,” Shafiq said. “He called me a sell-out and an apologist for the government just because I'd been consistently speaking out against Lee Rigby's brutal murder.”
That day, Butt was with Anjem Choudary—a notorious hate preacher who was finally jailed last year. It would later emerge that Rigby’s killers were close associates of Choudary and the banned extremist group, al Muhajiroun.
“I got into an angry confrontation with them,” Shafiq admitted. “And then the police marched off Anjem Choudary and group towards Millbank [the home of Britain’s civil service in Westminster].”
Butt was allowed to slip away again.
“I'm just not shocked at all that these people would do this. They want to get out there and be big men—but they're just cowards. They haven't got any balls,” said Shafiq.
The authorities were also tipped off by a friend of Butt who said he raised the alarm when he discovered that his friend was watching online videos of the American hate preacher Ahmad Musa Jibril.
“I phoned the anti-terror hotline,” the man, who did not give his name, told the BBC’s Asian Network on Sunday. “I spoke to the gentleman. I told him about our conversation and why I think he was radicalized.”
One of Butt’s neighbors went to the police when the man—who was known in the area as a keen table tennis player and devoted Arsenal fan—started talking to her son about converting to Islam.
Erica Gasparri told The Guardian that her son came home and said: “Mummy, I want to be a Muslim.”
She went down to the park to confront Butt before going to the local police station which passed his details to Scotland Yard.
The British police should also have had information about Zaghba, 22, a dual Italian-Moroccan citizen who had been on counter-terrorism officials’ radar since he tried to board a flight to Turkey from Bologna with a one-way ticket in March 2016.
Italian authorities grew suspicious when they discovered he was not traveling with money or luggage, and when they confiscated his cellphone, they found a wide range of ISIS propaganda and instructions about what to do once he arrived in Turkey.
Zaghba, who had been living in Bologna with his Italian mother after she split with his father in Morocco, had told his mother he was going to Rome for the weekend and had not mentioned flying to Turkey, according to court documents. He was apprehended on suspicion of terrorism, but was able to win his freedom while he awaited trial. His passports were still in Italian police custody when he was shot in London last weekend.
After his arrest, Italian authorities confiscated documents from his mother’s home and alerted Interpol and British authorities about his suspected terrorist ties. He had not been seen for several weeks when he took part in the London Bridge attack. Under normal circumstances, Italian officials would have expelled him if they could not keep him in police custody during a terrorism trial. Italy has expelled 187 suspected terrorists in the last year who they believe were foreign fighters who were headed for Syria and biding time in the country. They could not expel Zaghba because of his Italian citizenship, but he should have shown up on the Interpol terrorist and British watch list when he crossed into Britain.
Al Muhajiroun was banned in in Britain 2004 but related groups continued to flourish under Choudary until his arrest in 2014. It has been estimated that almost one in five Islamist-related convictions in Britain in the last decade was linked to al Muhajiroun or its front groups. The ringleader of the 7/7 bombing in 2005 that killed 52 commuters was also linked to the gang.
About three weeks before he was arrested, Choudary had insisted to The Daily Beast that none of his statements ever amounted to incitement to violence or encouraging terrorism. “I'm not encouraging anyone to do anything quite frankly,” he said. “I would never encourage anyone to go abroad, I would never encourage anyone to undergo military training.”
The jury decided he was lying and convicted him of terror offenses last year.
Long before he was arrested, many members of the Muslim community—and beyond—had demanded the police do more to stop him and his acolytes, including Khuram Butt.
In a speech from Downing Street on the morning after the attack, Theresa May said Britain had been too tolerant of extremists and appeared to call on Islamic communities to root out the extremists in their midst.
“The whole of our country needs to come together to take on this extremism, and we need to live our lives not in a series of separated, segregated communities, but as one truly United Kingdom,” she said.
Shafiq said the authorities had failed to deal with a radicalized Islamist when he was flagged up.
“I just find it breathtakingly offensive that we are telling Muslims in this country that they are not doing enough,” he said. “Theresa May, don't point the finger at the Muslim community and say we're tolerant of extremism when clearly people have been banging on about these extremists for years and reporting them to the authorities and she cut the police funding, she cut the police numbers.
“She was Home Secretary for six years—if we've all become ‘tolerant of extremism’ maybe she needs to look in the mirror.”