READING, United Kingdom: Britain’s interior minister yesterday promised that lessons would be learned from a stabbing rampage that left three people dead, including a US citizen, after a suspect held under terrorism laws was said to have been on the radar of security services.
The knife attack in a park in Reading, west of London, on Saturday evening is the third in a year, and has again raised concern about the early release of offenders from prison.
A 25-year-old man, widely identified as Libyan refugee Khairi Saadallah, was initially arrested on suspicion of murder, then re-arrested under the Counter-Terrorism Act 2000.
Thames Valley Police said one of the victims was a local teacher, James Furlong. Another was his friend Joe Ritchie-Bennett, originally from Philadelphia, reports said.
US Ambassador to Britain Woody Johnson offered condolences to everyone affected. “To our great sorrow, this includes an American citizen,” he wrote on Twitter.
British media reported that Saadallah had been freed from prison for non-terror offences earlier this month, and was known to the security services.
In November, a convicted jihadist on parole was shot dead by police after stabbing five people – two fatally – near London Bridge in central London.
Armed officers then shot dead another assailant who stabbed and injured three people in the Streatham area of south London, in February.
He had also been released early from a terrorism conviction and been under “active surveillance”.
On a visit to Reading, interior minister Priti Patel called the attack a “tragic, tragic event”, as pupils at Furlong’s school held a two minute’s silence in his memory.
“We need to make sure that we learn the lessons from what has happened over the weekend to prevent anything like this from happening again,” she said.
Witnesses to the attack in Forbury Gardens, central Reading, described seeing a lone assailant walking through the park shortly after 7:00 pm (1800 GMT), and stabbing them at random.
A police officer called to the scene tackled the suspect to the ground. Witnesses said the attacker looked as if he had put his hands “in a big bucket of red paint”.
British media said Saadallah briefly came to the attention of the domestic intelligence agency MI5 last year and was said to have planned to travel abroad, reportedly to Syria.
But he was not deemed to be a substantial risk. His mental health is understood to be a factor for investigating officers.
Patel said she was restricted in giving more details because of the ongoing police investigation but said the security services worked “intensively” to assess individual risks. “They act accordingly in terms of what kind of protective measures are put in place around those individuals, and what kind of protections are needed,” she added.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was “appalled and sickened” by the attack, and vowed he “will not hesitate to take action” to prevent any repeat.
Mark Rowley, a former assistant commissioner for specialist operations in the Metropolitan Police, said Saadallah would have been one of thousands of people on MI5’s watch list.
Some 3,000 people are under investigation at any one time but there are up to 40,000 people who have come up on the radar in relation to extremist ideology, he told BBC radio.
“To spot one of those who is going to go from a casual interest into a determined attacker… is the most wicked problem that the services face,” he added.
Security Minister James Brokenshire said that despite the attack, Britain’s terrorist threat level remains unchanged at “substantial”, which means an attack is deemed “likely”.
“People must remain vigilant,” he told the BBC. — AFP