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Over the past week, the authorities have disrupted two potential terrorist attacks in London. This follows the Westminster Bridge attack in March, which was claimed by the Islamic State (IS). Britain has been one of the most targeted states by IS’s campaign of global terror, and these latest incidents—whether or not they transpire to be IS-linked—underline the scale of the terrorist threat to Britain. Security forces prevented thirteen attacks in the U.K. between June 2013 and March 2017, and at any one time there are five-hundred live investigations into potential terrorist incidents, with 3,000 Britons believed to be capable of committing an act of domestic terrorism.
THE 27 APRIL ATTEMPTED ATTACK
At 14:20 on 27 April, near the junction of Parliament Street and Parliament Square, about 100 feet from Westminster Bridge, where Khalid Masood had mown down four pedestrians on 22 March before jumping out at Parliament and stabbing a policeman to death, police arrested a 27-year-old man, Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali, seemingly in the process of what looks like a very similar attack. Tipped off by a member of the Muslim community—Ali’s family, it seems—police and MI5, Britain’s domestic counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism Security Service, were tracking Ali. When the security services arrested Ali, he was in possession of a bag with at least three knives in it.
Arrested under the Terrorism Act, and held on suspicion of possession of an offensive weapon and preparing for acts of terrorism, Ali’s motivations have yet to be definitively established yet.
Ali is a British national born in Ethiopia and grew up in Tottenham. Ali attended Northumberland Park Community School, and was described as a “model pupil” and “the sweetest boy that used to love spending time in the music department,” by a former teacher, David Mishra. “He was well natured, polite and never gave me a moment’s trouble. He was actually a very kind boy. … [T]here were some very challenging students and he wasn’t one of them. … [H]e was getting on with his work and he loved his sports,” Mishra added. A pupil at the school echoed this assessment, saying he was a “general cool guy” and the kind of “guy who stands up to bullies and that kind of stuff”.
According to The Guardian, in October 2010, aged 21, Ali went on the Road 2 Hope flotilla to Gaza. Ali was reported—wrongly—to have been aboard the Mavi Marmara, the ship that was raided by Israel in May 2010 as it tried to break the blockade imposed against the Gaza Strip. Road 2 Hope is ostensibly a non-political, humanitarian organization.
The Guardian adds: “Muslim community sources say that Ali had gone travelling for two to three years [i.e. from around 2014], including to Pakistan and India, and on his return to the UK in 2016 was contacted by the security services. Ali described the MI5 contacts as comprising of phones calls and a visit in person. He is described by one person he discussed the matter with as ‘not particularly concerned’ by the approaches. While he did not formally complain about them, he did describe them as ‘harassment’.”
The narrative of a young man driven to radicalism by security forces harassment was advanced by defenders of Mohammed Emwazi (Abu Muharib al-Muhajir), known to much of the press as “Jihadi John,” and was proven—by none other than IS itself—to be exactly wrong. Emwazi had been on the security forces’ radar because he was a radical. Ali gives every indication of following the same pattern: he is reportedly estranged from his family, who live in Enfield, and “Ali’s idea of his religion is understood to have been a point of tension with his family,” according to The Guardian.
Ali remains in custody at Southwark police station in south London, and a further extension of detention was granted on 3 May, allowing authorities to hold him until 11 May.
[UPDATE (9 May 2017): Ali was charged with three offences, including preparing a terrorist attack. The two other, explosives-related charges are connected to events in Afghanistan five years ago. One charge from the Crown Prosecution Service alleges that “on or before 28 January 2012 [Ali] unlawfully and maliciously made or had in his possession or under his control a quantity of explosive substances with intent by means thereof to endanger life or cause serious injury to property or to enable any other person to do so”. The other charge alleges the same offence, also in Afghanistan, on or before 6 July 2012.]
RAIDS IN LONDON—AND KENT
About five hours after Ali had been arrested, at around 19:00 on 27 April, armed police rolled up an “active plot” consisting of at least seven people.
A house on Harlesden Road in Willesden, north-west London, which, according to neighbours, was home to a Somali family, was stormed by elite counter-terrorism specialist firearms officers (CTSFO) using CS gas. Two people were detained at the home, a 16-year-old boy and a 20-year-old woman; a 20-year-old man was picked up nearby. A 21-year-old woman was shot and injured, the first time CTSFO has opened fire during an operation; she was taken to a hospital, kept under guard, and arrested after being released from hospital on 30 April. Simultaneous with the Harlesden Road arrests, another woman, 43, was arrested in Kent.
Later in the evening of 27 April, two people, Mohamed Amoudi, 21, and a woman, aged 28, were arrested when they returned to the Harlesden Road property. (The 16-year-old boy is believed to be Amoudi’s brother, Muhanat.) Two other London addresses were searched. All of the arrested were held on suspicion of the commission, preparation, “have contained the threats that they posed”.
On 1 May, three woman, two of them aged 18 and one 19-year-old, were arrested “as part of an ongoing intelligence-led operation in connection with an address on Harlesden Road,” according to police.
Amoudi, a British citizen of Yemeni origins, is no stranger to the authorities. He was deported from Turkey to Britain on 14 March 2015 with two schoolboys whom it is understood he had “religiously influenced,” according to The London Times. It is suspected that Amoudi and the two boys were trying to travel to IS-held territory in Syria. Amoudi, a 19-year-old student at Queen Mary University of London, studying engineering and science at the time, is believed to have met the two A-Level pupils as a part of a group called Strivin Muslims, a missionary organization. The two younger boys attended schools in Wembley, northwest London: Wembley High and Preston Manor.
Amoudi has been a regular worshipper at a small mosque on Willesden High Road. Some of his views as expressed on social media, under the name Abu Umar al-Hadrami, are disconcerting. Amoudi had once tweeted: “I’m a militant Islamist jihadist salafist wahhabist fundamentalist conservative muslim in the eyes of the kuffar.”
Shortly before his attempted journey to the caliphate, Amoudi had attended a lecture by Haitham al-Haddad, an extremist preacher with strong views on Jews, homosexuals, Usama bin Ladin, and the “proper” way to mutilate the genitals of girls. Among al-Haddad’s followers is Asim Qureshi, the spokesman for CAGE, who gave a near-incredible press conference in 2015 where he described Emwazi as an “extremely kind, gentle, beautiful young man”. CAGE’s “outreach director,” Moazzam Begg, a former inmate at Guantanamo Bay, was also a speaker at the event days before Amoudi tried to join IS. Begg is a longstanding member of the British jihadist scene and though he is opposed to IS, he has been to Syria, twice, and on one trip to the militant camps met with Tarkhan Batirashvili (Abu Umar al-Shishani), the telegenic Chechen military commander of IS whose association was secret at the time.
UPDATE (4 May 2017): Amoudi and the two other men were released without charge late in the evening; the six women who were arrested remain in custody. That suggests that the authorities either don’t have enough evidence to prosecute, or are confident that their capacity to keep him under surveillance is adequate. The presence of females among IS-guided plots has become increasingly prevalent in recent months, notably in France with cases connected to Rashid Kassim, the French-speaking operative of IS’s Amn al-Kharji or foreign intelligence service.
UPDATE (10 May 2017): The three women arrested on 1 May were released.
UPDATE (11 May 2017): In what could be the first all-female Islamist terror plot, the three London women still in custody have been named—Rizlaine Boular, 21 (the lady who was shot by counterterrorism police); her mother, Mina Dich, 43 (who was arrested in Kent); and 20-year-old associate Khawla Barghouthi—and appeared at Westminster Magistrates’ Court, charged with conspiring between 11 and 28 April 2017 to murder “a person or persons unknown”. The trio were allegedly planning a knife attack similar to that conducted by Khalid Masood and which Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali appeared to be in the process of carrying out when he was arrested. Boular, who is thought to be of Algerian descent and born in Kensington and Chelsea, is accused of planning to directly carry out the attack—so is also charged with engaging in conduct in preparation for terrorist acts—and Dich and Barghouthi are charged with intending to assist her.