Last week was the third week of the inquest into the deaths of two young people murdered at Fishmongers Hall, London by convicted terrorist Usman Khan. Khan was under state supervision after release from prison at the time of the attack on 29 November 2019. Please see here for the week two summary of this case.
Public Interest Immunity
Each week, as well as a summary of the main developments, I am also looking at aspects of the inquest that may be of interest to our international readers. Public Interest Immunity (PII) is one such example.
PII is a process whereby the Coroner may exclude or modify evidence, even if this is deemed highly relevant, on the basis that disclosure might pose an unacceptable risk to national security. The Secretary of State for the Home Department (effectively our minister of the Interior, responsible for most of the U.K.’s security intelligence agencies) is under a duty to apply for PII if she believes that the disclosure of information would undermine our counter terrorism effort. For example, this might be in terms of information passed by covert human intelligence sources (i.e., informants) that could expose their identity and compromise them. It could also include disclosure of methods used by the security services to track terrorists and review attacks that might be useful to other extremists. Both reasons were used for PII applications to the Coroner in the case of Khan. The Coroner reviewed the applications against his duty to ensure that the inquest jury has all relevant information before it to serve open justice and allow an effective inquiry. The Coroner, Judge Mark Lucraft QC, recorded that following his review of the applications, ‘the Secretary of State accepted that her PII claim should be abandoned in respect of some documents and that in other respects it should be adjusted.’ This is quite normal in such sensitive inquests and the Coroner was explicit in saying it did not imply criticism of her actions.
Key events from last week.
- The inquest heard further evidence from the Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Bamadam, the name given to the investigation into the Fishmongers Hall attack. The inquest heard that in early 2018, during the time Usman Khan was involved in the prison ‘Learning Together’ courses with his victims, an initial assessment was made for the multi-agency risk management arrangements (called MAPPA) for his release later that year. Counsel stated this security assessment included assertions ‘about Khan being an influential senior terrorist offender, radicalising others and seeking to dictate the behaviour of non−Muslims.’ The witness agreed this was correct.
- The senior counterterrorism official at the High Security HMP Whitemoor prison, where Khan was held before his release, admitted that he failed to pick up warning signs displayed by Khan just minutes before his attack. Steve Machin attended the event at Fishmongers Hall where Khan murdered Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt. Khan had concealed a fake suicide belt underneath a heavy coat that he wore inside the event. Machin on questioning him accepted what he called Khan’s ‘backstory’ about dressing for cold weather even though the event was in a well heated building. When pressed by Nick Armstrong, the barrister for the family of Jack Merritt on whether his ‘security antennae’ was down, Machin responded, ‘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.’
- The Governor of Whitemoor prison at the time of the attack, Will Styles, who has now been promoted to the Deputy Director in charge of all High Security prisons in the south of England also gave evidence about the risk management of Usman Khan while in prison custody. Styles was asked about what assessment took place to allow a convicted terrorist to participate in the Learning Together programme that matched Cambridge University students with prisoners in classes at the prison. He said, 'Some of the coursework involved ethics, and there was discussion whether someone with a history of extremist ideology would be able to participate respectfully in a discussion about ethics.' In earlier evidence disclosed by police investigating the murders of the two students Khan first met in these classes, it was revealed that prison intelligence up to and at the time of Khan’s participation in the course suggested he was an active terrorist involved in radicalising others. Styles also disclosed that the Learning Together course at his prison, which at that point of Khan’s attack, had never been formally reviewed was moved from the prison where it started, a lower security therapeutic community to his High Security prison in part because of its proximity to Cambridge University where the Learning Together organisation is based. Styles consistently denied that he let his ‘enthusiasm’ for Learning Together as a concept cloud his judgment in his professional obligations in respect of Usman Khan.
- Earlier in the week, the inquest heard from one of Khan’s brothers who revealed the contents of the last contact he had with Khan by telephone early in the morning of the day before the attack. The witness agreed with the Counsel’s assessment that ‘there was nothing unusual or concerning’ about that conversation which revolved around the best way to unblock a sink.
This week’s testimony will include witnesses on counterterrorism policy and practice from HM Prison and Probation senior officials and front-line practitioners who carried out assessments of Khan’s risk.