LONDON—The British government will review its sentencing policies after a convicted terrorist on early release from prison carried out a stabbing attack in the heart of London that left two people dead.
Police identified the attacker, who they shot dead on London Bridge on Friday, as 28-year-old Usman Khan. He had been convicted in 2012 for terrorism offenses and served time in prison for the part he played in a plot to bomb the London Stock Exchange in 2010. Three people were also injured in the attack, one seriously.
Authorities said that Mr. Khan appeared to have acted alone.
He was released from prison in December 2018 under a set of conditions that limited his movements and other activities, including an electronic tag allowing the authorities to track his whereabouts.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the scene of the attack Saturday, and criticized the early release of terrorists. “The practice of early release simply isn’t working and you’ve got some very good evidence of how that isn’t working with this case,” he said. “They should serve every year of [their] sentence,” Mr. Johnson added.
Security officials said the attack reflected the difficulties of stopping less sophisticated attacks carried out by lone actors, even by people who are being monitored.
Mr. Khan was one of nine people who were imprisoned after pleading guilty to being part of a group that was plotting in 2010 to plant a pipe bomb in a toilet in the London Stock Exchange.
The group, which had been tracked by Britain’s internal security service MI5 in an operation code-named Guava, had also discussed sending letter bombs to other addresses, including to the home of Mr. Johnson, who was at the time mayor of London.
Mr. Khan admitted attending terror-attack planning meetings, fundraising for terrorism and possessing copies of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire.
Mr. Khan, who was 19 when he was arrested, was born in the U.K. to a family of immigrants from Pakistani-administered Kashmir and lived in the city of Stoke in the English Midlands.
The group behind the London Stock Exchange plot formed before Islamic State came to prominence and its turn to terrorism was instead inspired by the American-born Yemen-based cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a 2011 U.S. drone strike. The group was said by prosecutors to be carrying out the strategy used by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Mr. Khan admitted plotting to set up a terrorist training camp on land his family owned in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, but the plans weren’t considered to have advanced very far before his arrest. Before he was sentenced by a judge in 2012, he wrote a letter saying he had repented of his terrorist views.
Friday’s attack came as Britons prepare to vote for a new government in a Dec. 12 election. The campaign, which has focused on the U.K.’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, was briefly suspended after the attack as Mr. Johnson returned to London, but resumed Saturday.
The attack took place inside Fishmongers’ Hall, a building on the northwestern end of London Bridge that is used for conferences. The Metropolitan Police Force, which serves London, confirmed that the attack was related to an event hosted by Learning Together, a University of Cambridge program that aims to rehabilitate prisoners through education.
Eyewitnesses and footage taken at the scene show Mr. Khan brandishing knives as he was fended off by members of the public. One held a fire extinguisher which he trained on the attacker, while another poked at him with a stick that was reportedly the tusk of a narwhal that was on display in the hall. Police moved off the members of the public and shot the attacker dead because he appeared to be wearing a suicide vest that turned out to be fake.
Professor Stephen Toope, vice chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said the university was in touch with the Metropolitan Police and awaiting further details of the victims. “I am devastated to learn that today’s hateful attack on London Bridge may have been targeted at staff, students and alumni attending an event organised by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology,” he said in a statement on Twitter. “We mourn the dead and we hope for a speedy recovery for the injured. Our thoughts are with all their families and friends.”
Mr. Khan’s attendance at the event would have been cleared by authorities monitoring him, officials said.
As the election campaign resumed, the U.K.’s main opposition party questioned changes in the treatment of imprisoned terrorists and reductions in police numbers during a decadelong program of government spending cuts.
“There’ll be questions asked over the next few days about all that was done,” said Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London and a member of the Labour Party. “We can be more safe with more police and more resources.”
Friday’s attacker was first sentenced in 2012 to an indefinite prison sentence under a program known as Imprisonment for Public Protection, under which people could be imprisoned for longer than their mandated terms if they were deemed to pose a danger to the public after their release. In 2013, his indefinite sentence was overturned on appeal with the appeal judges saying Mr. Khan’s plans to set up a terrorist camp didn’t constitute an immediate public threat. A 16-year sentence was imposed, meaning he was eligible for release in December 2018 having served half his sentence, including time on remand, since his arrest in December 2010. Britain’s Criminal Justice Act states that half a sentence needs to be spent in jail with the other half under supervision but in the community.
The Conservative-led government in 2012 ended the IPP program, though that decision didn’t affect those who had already been sentenced under its provisions.
Security Minister Brandon Lewis said the government would look again at that 2012 decision.
“We do have to look again at the sentencing system,” he said. “We will have to move very swiftly.”
Although no new sentences were imposed under IPPs after their abolition, around 2,400 people were still in jail under that legislation at the end of March 2019.
The Department of Justice said Mr. Khan was one of 51 inmates with terror links let out of jail in the 12 months to the end of March 2019. Officials say a steady stream of offenders who were sentenced for their roles in a wave of terrorist plots of a decade or more ago are being released into the community now, who, along with fighters returning from Syria, pose headaches for the security services.
The U.K. has suffered a wave of terrorism-related attacks in recent years. In June 2017, London Bridge and the surrounding area were the scene of a bloody rampage by three knife-wielding men, who plowed a van into pedestrians and stabbed people in nearby bars and restaurants. All three were shot dead by police. Eight people were killed and dozens hospitalized in an assault that interrupted campaigning for a national election.
British security services in November lowered their assessment of the risk of a major terrorist attack to “substantial,” the third rung on a five-point scale. That hasn’t so far been changed, reflecting the initial assessment that the attacker was acting alone on Friday.
|Wall Street Journal