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Terrorism expert failed to spot warning signs about Fishmongers’ Hall attacker – inquest

A prison counter-terrorism expert has admitted to an inquest that he failed to pick up on warning signs about Usman Khan when he talked to him just before his deadly terror attack at Fishmongers’ Hall in London.

Steve Machin, the head of counter-terrorism at Whitemoor prison, where Khan had been held 11 months before his attack, said he was not in a work “headspace” when he chatted to Khan at a prison education event in the hall, hosted by Cambridge University’s Learning Together organisation.

A few hours later Khan stabbed to death Jack Merritt and Saskia Jones.

At an inquest into their deaths Nick Armstrong, counsel for Merritt’s family, asked Machin why he did not think to question why Khan was wearing a thick coat indoors that turned out to be concealing a fake suicide vest.

Machin said Khan “provided a backstory” about a forecast for cold weather which “felt plausible”.

Armstrong suggested Machin had turned off his “security antennae” at the event because he had been taken in by Learning Together’s presentation of Khan as a success story for rehabilitating prisoners through education.

Machin said: “I couldn’t live my life expecting every encounter with the community or ex-offenders is going to lead to devastation, I couldn’t live with that level of paranoia.” He added he was “not in the same headspace as when I was at work”. He added: “I saw him being involved [with Learning Together] as good, it hadn’t got to the point of a good news story.”

Armstrong replied: “The problem with a good news story is they’re not always true.”

Machin also denied hearing about reported problems of passing on prison intelligence about Khan to meetings of the multi-agency public protection arrangements (Mappa) at the time of Khan’s release, in December 2018. He said: “It wasn’t part of my remit to actually feed into this directly.”

Armstrong said: “I’m going to suggest that that needs much more tightening up.”

Machin replied: “We were following the requirements to comply with the Mappa process to the letter.” But he agreed with Armstrong that he was “siloing off” information about Khan’s risk. Machin said: “There has been a lot of reflection on many aspects of my work which has changed. As a result of this, I am sure our policies will change and my way of working will change.”

Armstrong pressed Machin on why intelligence about Khan, which suggested he was seeking “a return to his old ways”, was not shared with Learning Together. Machin replied: “One thing I will be taking back to work will be briefing non-intelligence agencies what we can and can’t share.”

Armstrong said: “There is momentum building with Khan and Learning Together, he’s becoming a poster boy [for Learning Together], he’s becoming a success story, but that bubble needs puncturing. You don’t ring up and say: ‘Just watch him’?” Machin replied: “No.”

Last week Learning Together co-founders rejected the suggestion that Khan was a “poster boy” for them.

Later the inquest heard that while in prison Khan repeatedly expressed frustration at being suspected of lying to advance Islam.

Jo Boulton, Khan’s offender manager at Whitemoor, said he first resisted this suggestion in 2017 in response to an intelligence report “describing him as using taqiyya – a permissible form of telling lies to advance the course of Islam.” Boulton said: “He was very unhappy about that. He brought it up numerous times, this was the first time.”

In the months before Khan was released on licence in December 2018, Boulton recommended he be downgraded from a high risk category A prisoner to a lower risk category B prisoner, after an improvement in his behaviour. She said: “Recommending a downgrade was me showing that I recognise that your attitude and your behaviour has come a long way since the year before.”

Jonathan Hough, QC, counsel to the inquest, asked Boulton if she thought she had been deceived by Khan. “Did you consider at that time that there was any risk that he was engaged in taqiyya with you?” he asked.

Boulton replied: “There is always a possibility. But he would have nothing to gain, because he was going to get out of prison however he behaved towards me. I just wanted to encourage Usman to carry on with the positive behaviour and engagement.”

Boulton was challenged by Armstrong about why she gave such an assessment at the end of Khan’s sentence when there was “reliable evidence suggesting he may be planning an attack on release”. He asked: “Do you think you got this wrong, and underestimated this, and you were just a bit out of your depth at this point in your career?”

Boulton said: “I don’t believe so, no, because there were additional licence conditions [placed on Khan on release]”.

The inquest continues.

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