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U.K. security services struggle to foil copycats

A police officer forensic office enters a house as a police officer looks on during a police operation at a residence in Ilford, in east London on June 6, 2017, in the wake of an attack in the British capital which left seven people dead. AFP / Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS

LONDON: Just hours before Khuram Butt and two accomplices drove a rented van into pedestrians on London Bridge and stabbed people nearby, he was asking neighbors where he could hire a vehicle. One of the neighbors, Ikenna Chigbo, said he recognized Butt from a photo issued by British police following Saturday night’s attack in the capital that killed seven and injured nearly 50.

Chigbo told Reuters that the man he knew as “Abz” had shown interest in a van he had rented.

“I was in the process of moving house, he was looking at the van, asking me where I hired it, how much it cost, and if the vans were available in automatic,” said Chigbo, who lived in a neighboring apartment in Barking, east London.

“That was Saturday, approximately 3 p.m. He came across ... almost euphoric. He just seemed on a whole different level. It was quite strange,” Chigbo said.

About seven hours later, shortly before 10 p.m. local time, Butt – along with Rachid Redouane and another man not yet named by police – began their rampage across London Bridge and through the bustling Borough Market area. All three were shot dead at the scene by police.

Pakistani-born Butt, 27, a keen fan of Arsenal football club, was known to the intelligence services but not thought to be actively plotting an attack.

His conversation with Chigbo also reinforces suggestions that Britain’s third deadly militant incident in just three months may have involved little planning or sophistication.

Police have said they need a major rethink about how to counter such plots by people who had come onto their radar but were not considered a serious threat.

“We are all needing to look very hard at our strategy at what we’ve been doing,” said Cressida Dick, London’s police chief.

“In my view we will need to change again in the future.”

Saturday’s attack follows a similar method first seen in Britain four years ago when two British Muslim converts used a car to mow down soldier Lee Rigby before stabbing him to death.

The London Bridge rampage was almost a direct copy of the crude attack in March when Khalid Masood ploughed into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman to death in the grounds of Parliament.

Neither attack seemed to be the result of any long-term planning nor, despite the claim of responsibility by Daesh (ISIS), any serious foreign direction.

“We are dealing with people who appear very volatile, very unstable many of them, people who are prepared to use low-tech methods, [who] sometimes go from thinking about the idea to carrying out the attack in a very short space of time,” Dick said, adding further copycat attacks were a possibility.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain is faced with a new trend where “terrorism breeds terrorism” and inspired not just by “carefully constructed plots after years of planning and training – and not even as lone attackers radicalized online – but by copying one another and often using the crudest of means of attack.”

Britain’s domestic intelligence agency MI5 has identified about 23,000 people as potentially violent Islamists with 3,000 of these considered to pose a threat. It is currently running 500 active investigations.

“It is a very large number. It’s very, very hard. You only have to think how would you go about keeping under very active surveillance over 20,000 people,” Dick said.

Most of those involved in the three recent attacks were known to the security services, but none had been considered to pose a threat that required extrasurveillance.

The Westminster Bridge attacker had shown up on the periphery of previous terrorism investigations that brought Masood to MI5’s notice, but not enough to warrant further action. Investigators now believe he was a “lone wolf” who radicalized himself through material on the internet.

Salman Abedi – the 22-year-old born in Britain to Libyan parents who killed 22 people in a suicide attack on a pop concert in Manchester last month – was also known to MI5 but not under active investigation. The BBC reported concerns had been raised with the authorities on at least three occasions.

Butt was known to police and MI5. He appeared in a TV documentary last year about a radical group which was seen at one stage unfurling a Daesh flag.

One of his friends told BBC Asian Network he had phoned an anti-terrorist hotline set up by British authorities because he feared Butt had been radicalized after watching clips of U.S. preacher Ahmad Musa Jebril, whose online sermons have been a leading source of inspiration for foreign fighters in Syria.

“I did my bit, I know a lot of people did but the authorities didn’t do their bit and that’s what’s shocking,” the friend, who the BBC did not identify, said.

Another neighbor also said she had reported Butt to police two years ago after she feared he was radicalizing children in a local park.

“There was no intelligence to suggest that this attack was being planned and the investigation had been prioritized accordingly,” police said in a statement.

A report by Britain’s Intelligence and Security Committee into Rigby’s murder in May 2013 concluded the security services could not have stopped the attack. However, one of the killers had been investigated five times, twice as a high priority, and it said more needed to be done in dealing with low-level suspects. With finite resources, the authorities have to weigh up who poses the greatest threat and needs intensive monitoring. At least two dozen people are needed to carry out 24-hour surveillance on just one suspect and about 50 officers can be required at times.

“It’s costly and difficult and it’s hard to know what’s going on in people’s minds,” Commissioner Dick said. The authorities say they have foiled 18 plots since Rigby’s killing, including five since the Westminster Bridge attack in March.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute think tank, said it was not clear whether intelligence agencies would be able to develop a system which could cope with such low-tech plots.

“You can do all the sort of calculations you want ... but ultimately it’s going to be difficult if all it takes to do a plot is to get a knife and drive your car into people,” he said.

“In a way it would be even worse if they didn’t know who these people were, and were looking in completely the wrong place.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 07, 2017, on page 10.

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