Terror on a Shopping Street: The Inquest into the Streatham High Road Incident

August 9, 2021
Ian Acheson  —  CEP Senior Advisor

Last Monday in London’s Royal Courts of Justice (commonly referred to as the Old Bailey), the Inquest began into the death of convicted terrorist Sudesh Amman in Streatham, a London suburb, on 2nd February 2020. Amman had been released from prison 10 days before being killed by undercover police officers who were following him. After emerging from a hardware store armed with an 8-inch kitchen knife he had seized, he commenced stabbing shoppers before being shot dead by officers. Two members of the public suffered knife wounds before he was subdued.

Amman’s killing followed the shooting dead of another convicted terrorist prison released under surveillance, Usman Khan, by police just over two months earlier. In this case, which I covered for the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) here, the jury delivered a verdict that Khan was lawfully killed. In the United Kingdom, all killings by agents of the state are subject to Inquest when a (usually appointed) jury of randomly selected citizens is asked to decide on four key questions:

  • Who was killed;
  • When and where they were killed; and
  • How they came to die.

The Coroner has determined that this case is an ‘article 2’ Inquest, that is, an enhanced inquest with a wider ranging investigatory remit than into other deaths where the state is not involved. Article 2 refers to the obligation of the state to protect life contained in the European Convention on Human Rights to which the U.K. is signatory. The difference between this and a non-article 2 inquest can be summed up in this way: A non-compliant inquest looks very narrowly at ‘by what means’ a person died. A compliant inquest like this one will look more widely at ‘in what circumstances’ Amman died which allows the Coroner the latitude to investigate all the factors that may have contributed to his fatal shooting by police. These include his risk management in custody and in the short period of time he was at liberty but under supervision before launching his attack. The agencies involved in this management process are principally the Prison and Probation service, police counter terrorism officers, the Home Office, and the Security Service (MI5). These agencies are required by law to act together to manage the risk of serious harm in what is called Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements or MAPPA.

Week one of evidence from witnesses concluded on Friday, and these are the significant facts obtained from the transcript of evidence. This is available for the public to see here.

  • Amman, 20, received a 40-month sentence for obtaining and distributing material used for terrorist purposes. He spent all of his time in prison in HMP Belmarsh, a High Security prison in South East London. His sentence type meant that he was automatically released from prison into supervision in the community at the half-way point in his custody. Because of emergency legislation introduced after his killing, it is no longer possible for terrorist offenders to be automatically released without an assessment of their risk being carried out first by the Parole Board.
  • His release happened despite serious concerns by the police and probation service that he was an active risk to others. A senior counterterrorism policeman wrote to the Governor of HMP Belmarsh eight days before his release asking if there was any way to keep him in prison custody beyond this date. The Governor responded by saying that this could not be done.  
  • During his time in prison, intelligence reports and other analysis showed Amman retained his commitment to violent extremism. As a consequence, he was frequently moved around the wings, including to the segregation unit and the prisons High Security Unit to prevent him from radicalising others. He refused to participate in extremism risk screening processes. Two psychologists responsible for determining the threat he posed in prison and after release concurred. One stated to the Inquest counsel: ‘based on his background information 4 and all the collateral information that myself and Ieva [a colleague] saw, we both came to the conclusion that it would be highly likely that he would carry out a low-level attack where he can access a weapon quite quickly and easily and that will be in the form of stabbing.
  • Amman’s management in the community included engagement with practical and theological mentors both provided by the Government’s Desistence and Disengagement strategy designed to help released prisoners move away from violence. A report from one of these mentors on a meeting on January 30th some three days before his attack, read to the court stated: ‘he [Amman] now realised that people who hurt other people through things like acts of terror were pushing those people away from the faith and causing hatred.’  This analysis was delivered on the same day police officers shadowing Amman were authorised to carry firearms amid concerns he might be ready to carry out another attack. According to the summary of the facts presented as opening remarks to the Inquest by the Coroner on the first day of the Inquest, ‘On Friday, 31 January 2020, he was seen looking at knives in a shop and purchasing some domestic items that could possibly be used to make a hoax explosive belt.’
  • During the 10 days Amman was at large in the community before his attack, there was an active debate between police and probation service about the interdiction of the escalating risk. There were two options: (1) sending Amman back to prison for breaching his extensive licence conditions (the contract governing his behaviour, location, etc. he signed with the probation service as a condition of his release); or (2) arresting Amman for terrorist preparation offences. The Detective Superintendent of the Metropolitan police counterterrorism command, SO15, in charge of the surveillance operation on Amman and who gave evidence under anonymity defended the decision not to arrest him prior to the attack. When challenged on the rationale behind that decision by Counsel for the family of the deceased, he said: ‘So if he had been arrested at the time you described, he would have been back out -- in my experience, he would have been back out in the community and he would have had more of an operational advantage around committing an attack, the same mindset, and it would have made our response harder to enact.’ Witnesses from the Probation service concurred with this analysis in that there was no basis to recall Amman to custody as he was fully compliant with his licence conditions.
  • Amman was shot dead by police officers who were shadowing him 62 seconds after he commenced his stabbing attack on shoppers in Streatham High Street. He was wearing what appeared to be an explosive belt, later revealed to be a hoax.

The inquest continues. It is scheduled to concluded on Friday, 20th August. Until the jury have reached their conclusion, I will confine myself to factual reporting of events. After the conclusion there will be an analysis. This week’s witnesses include the surveillance officers who fired on Amman and others concerned with their training and deployment.

Daily Dose

Extremists: Their Words. Their Actions.

Fact:

On September 17, 2019, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle detonated outside a Presidential rally in Charikar, Afghanistan, killing at least 26 people and injuring another 30. Later, a suicide bomber detonated outside the Ministry of Defense in Kabul, killing 22 and wounding 38 others. The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks. 

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