A string of failures by British security and the prison services led to the murders of Cambridge University students Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones in the London Bridge terror attack, an inquest has concluded.
Jack, 25, from Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, and Saskia, 23, from Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire were murdered by convicted terrorist Usman Khan on November 29, 2019.
All three had been attending a prison rehabilitation event, Learning Together, at Fishmongers’ Hall which had been set up by Cambridge’s criminology department.
The inquest heard how it was by chance that Jack Merritt went into the toilet where Khan was preparing his attack by strapping knives to his hands.
Jack was stabbed repeatedly by Khan who then attacked Saskia Jones, stabbing her in the neck.
Khan, who also wore a fake bomb vest, was then pursued by other attendees, who used a narwhal tusk and a fire extinguisher to keep his knives at bay.
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He was driven out of the event out onto London Bridge where he was shot and killed by police.
In an inquest held at the Guildhall in London, which concluded on Friday (May 28), it was found that a series of failures had lead to Khan’s early release from Whitemoor prison, near March in Cambridgeshire.
Khan’s path to his death on London Bridge followed a long history of involvement in extremism, the inquest’s jury heard.
It was heard that Khan had been released from Whitemoor prison 11 months earlier to the attack under strict licence conditions and was under investigation by counter-terrorism police and MI5.
Failings in Khan’s management in the community and information-sharing and guidance by agencies responsible for monitoring or investigating Khan contributed to the students’ deaths, the jury concluded.
Jurors also found omissions or deficiencies in the organisation and security of the event at Fishmongers’ Hall.
In a narrative conclusion, the jury highlighted “unacceptable management and lack of accountability”, “serious deficiencies in the management of Khan” by the multi-agency organisation responsible for public safety, and “insufficient experience and training”.
The jury added there was a “blind spot to Khan’s unique risk due to a ‘poster boy’ image.”
The hearing was told that Khan had spent eight years in jail for plotting to set up a terror training camp in Pakistan.
Behind bars, he had become more dangerous amid incidents of violence and extremist bullying, jurors were told. On his release in December 2018, he was assessed as being a “very high risk of serious harm” to the public.
MI5, which had already launched a covert investigation with West Midlands Police supported by Staffordshire Special Branch, had intelligence that Khan was planning to “return to his old ways” and aspired to carry out an attack.
Yet the attack aspiration information was not passed on by police to others involved in Khan’s management in the community and the “old ways” intelligence was labelled “low grade”.
Probation officers responsible for Khan lacked experience in dealing with terrorist offenders, jurors also heard.
A proposal to allow Khan to travel unescorted to London for the Learning Together event was mooted at a multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) meeting in August 2019.
Jurors heard there was no record of it being positively approved by the panel, although no one raised any objections or discussed the risks.
Security services knew of attack plan before it happened
The panel failed to recognise the “trophy” status of Fishmongers’ Hall, near London Bridge, as a potential high-value terrorist target at the time, it was claimed.
Security services later became aware of the plan but did not warn against it, despite remaining “skeptical” about Khan. The ongoing investigation had not identified suspicious activity and MI5 was considering closing it, the hearing was told.
But jurors heard there were some potential warning signs – flashes of anger from Khan, his failure to find a job, and his increasing isolation as he spent time in his flat playing Xbox.
Officers from the Government’s Prevent anti-radicalisation scheme spent just 18 minutes with him after he moved out of approved premises in September 2019.
In the final days, Khan had bought a set of knives and assembled a fake suicide vest at his rented flat in Stafford.
He had travelled on the train to London alone, putting on the dummy device under a bulky jacket en route.
A chilling image showed Khan, still wearing his coat, sitting next to Saskia Jones at a table at Fishmongers’ Hall.
He then went into the men’s toilets and strapped two knives onto his hands in a cubicle.
It was pure chance that the first person he encountered was Jack Merritt, whom he stabbed repeatedly.
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Khan went on to stab Ms Jones once in the neck and injure three other people shouting “Allahu Akbar” before he was shot dead.
Nick Armstrong, for Mr Merritt’s family, said it was “completely crazy” that Khan was allowed to attend Fishmongers’ Hall on his own, given what was known about him.
It was argued that the Fishmongers’ Hall management, who were unaware a convicted terrorist was attending the event, should have been advised to put more security measures in place and Khan could have been met by an officer en route to the venue.
However, a senior MI5 officer told jurors it would have taken an unjustified 24/7 surveillance to have foiled the attack.
Jurors had considered their conclusions after hearing evidence from 84 witnesses over six weeks.
Since the attack, the Ministry of Justice has brought in a raft of new measures to tighten up the management of terrorist offenders in the community.
They include more specialist counter-terrorism probation officers.
Polygraph testing for adult terror offenders on licence is due to be brought in at the end of June.