The M15 probe into London Bridge terrorist Khuram Butt was suspended three months before the attack because there were even more serious plots to investigate, an inquest heard.
A senior officer giving evidence at the inquest into the deaths of the eight victims said the counter-terrorism investigation into the ringleader was put on hold as he was only considered a ‘medium risk’.
The witness, identified only as Witness L, told the Old Bailey today that the inquiry was suspended from March until May 2017 due to the ‘level of resourcing available’.
Rachid Redouane, 30, Youssef Zaghba, 22, and Butt, 27, mowed down pedestrians before roaming through Borough Market stabbing passers-by on June 3.
Security services received a second anonymous tip-off that Butt was an extremist before the investigation was launched into him in 2015, the inquest heard.
Butt’s own brother-in-law gave the first report on him to an anti-terror hotline because his views were becoming ‘increasingly extreme’ nearly two years before the atrocity, an earlier hearing heard.
Terrorist Khuram Butt after he was shot by police in Borough Market. Butt and his fellow attacker strapped empty canisters to their waists to look like explosive devices
The van used in the London Bridge attacks to mow down pedestrians before crashing into railings outside the Barrowboy and Banker pub
Witness L told the court the investigation into Butt was suspended during the most ‘alarming’ period MI5 had faced in nearly three decades.
He said the decision to suspend a number of investigations at the time was made amid ‘the unprecedented level of threat which we were facing and therefore the pressure on our resources’.
During a review assessing the likelihood of him launching a lone wolf attack carried out in September that year Butt was ‘considered to present a medium risk of being a potential lone actor and no risk of being a spontaneous or volatile extremist’.
That was despite a 2010 caution for assault causing actual bodily harm and regularly associating with al-Muhajiroun (ALM) leader Anjem Choudary.
Khuram Butt was shot dead by police on June 3, 2017
Butt came onto MI5’s radar back in 2015 following a tip-off ‘suggesting that an individual had an aspiration to conduct an attack in the UK’.
In July of that year he had been spotted at a rally at Regent’s Park Mosque before praying in front of an ISIS flag in the park and was photographed with known extremists Shakil Chapra and Mohammed Shamsuddin.
Witness L added: ‘In my 28 years (in MI5), I cannot recall a time as alarming as this time.’
Investigators failed to identify the school where Butt and his fellow attacker Zaghba both taught – the Ad-Deen primary school in Ilford, east London – that was run by the wife of known extremist Sajeed Shahid.
Witness L accepted that a potential investigative opportunity had been lost, as well as in a failure to examine more closely the gym that Butt, Zaghba and the third attacker Redouane all attended, again owned by Shahid.
He said: ‘We did seek to task greater coverage of the gym but it did not come to fruition.’
Earlier, the court heard that MI5 received an anonymous tip-off that Butt was an extremist before an investigation was launched into him in 2015.
Witness L said an informant who specifically asked not to be contacted again had got in touch with the security service.
He said the intelligence ‘identified an individual called Khuram Butt who was in the right sort of age range and said that he was an extremist’.
CCTV of Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba and Khuram Butt entering the Ummah Fitness Centre in Ilford, east London, where all three regularly trained in days before the attack
Redouane, Zaghba and Butt seen entering their gym. All three terrorists were shot dead by police at the scene
This information was handed over before MI5 launched an official investigation into Butt in mid-2015.
He had come on to their radar in 2014 after being identified as a supporter of banned extremist group al-Muhajiroun.
The service only realised after the London Bridge attack in June 2017 that the information had related to the same person.
Butt, 27, Redouane, 30, and Zaghba, 22, killed eight people and injured 48 more in the van and knife attack on June 3 2017.
They mowed down pedestrians on London Bridge before stabbing innocent bystanders at random in nearby Borough Market.
Jonathan Hough QC, counsel to the inquests into the victims’ deaths, asked Witness L if the public should be concerned that the police and MI5 investigation into Butt was earlier suspended for around a month in February 2016, after a series of terror attacks in mainland Europe.
At this stage it was known that Butt had expressed the desire to launch a terrorist attack in the UK in 2015 and was publicly associating with members of al-Muhajiroun, including leading figure Choudary.
Authorities also did not know he had disseminated extremist material, some of which could have led to a criminal charge, and was considered at risk of travelling to Syria to fight for Islamic State.
Khuram Butt slipped through the net, despite being reported by his own family for extremism and MI5 receiving another tip-off about him
The route the terrorists took on the day of the London Bridge attacks through the City towards Borough Market
Witness L said: ‘I think it reflects the level of resourcing available. This and other similarly concerning investigations had to be suspended because there were even more concerning investigations above these.’
Giving evidence shielded from public view, the officer, who is head of policy, strategy and capability in MI5’s international counter-terrorism branch, said that money was not the sole issue.
He told the court: ‘Money is not the key determinant here. Even if we’d asked for more money in November 2015, its ability to transfer into actual experienced investigators by 2016 would simply not be plausible.’
He told the Old Bailey that a post-attack review, carried out by a manager in MI5 with a panel of experts, found ‘the investigation into Khuram Butt was well and effectively run’.
It also said the decisions to temporarily suspend investigations into the 27-year-old due to resourcing pressures in February 2016 and March 2017 were ‘logical and proportionate in the circumstances’.
Police were not consulted about the suspensions ‘in any systematic way’ but may have been spoken to informally, he told the court.
Witness L is facing questions about how much MI5 knew about the three London Bridge attackers before the atrocity and whether it could have been stopped.
Victims of the terror attack were Xavier Thomas, 45, Christine Archibald, 30, Sara Zelenak, 21, Sebastien Belanger, 36, James McMullan, 32, Kirsty Boden, 28, Alexandre Pigeard, 26, and Ignacio Echeverria, 39.