LONDON – British police on Tuesday named the third London Bridge attacker as 22-year-old Youssef Zaghba from east London, offering further suggestions that the plot was hatched locally even as questions were raised about gaps in counterterrorism surveillance.
It now appears at least two of the three assailants were known to British intelligence services, putting Prime Minister Theresa May and top law enforcement officials under pressure to explain what more, if anything, could have been done to stop the deadly attack in London that left 7 dead and dozens injured.
A senior Italian police official told The Washington Post that Zaghba was born in Fez, Morocco in January 1995, the son of a Moroccan father and Italian mother, who lived for a time in Italy and had been suspected of associating with a terror organization.
In an interview with Italy’s Radio 24, Giuseppe Amato, chief prosecutor in Bologna, said Zaghba had been flagged at the airport en route to Turkey because he was traveling on a one-way ticket and only with a backpack as luggage.
When asked by authorities about his intentions, initially, Amato said, Zaghba replied that he was leaving to become “a terrorist.” The suspect quickly corrected himself, but was nevertheless later brought up on terror charges.
His phone containing Islamic State propaganda was seized, but an Italian court found a lack of evidence, dropping charges and ordering the device returned.
“Thus its contents could not be thoroughly examined,” Amato said.
Italy’s anti-terror police continued to monitor Zaghba for 18 months. “but the evidence wasn’t there that he was a terrorist,” Amato said. “He was (just) a suspect because of his behavior.”
Amato noted, however, that Zaghba had been “flagged to London (authorities) as a potential suspect.”
A second Italian official familiar with the investigation said there had been “an absolute interchange of investigative information with British authorities” in Zaghba’s case.
In a statement Tuesday, British authorities said Zaghba was “not a police or MI5 subject of interest.”
There were already questions about how one of the attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt, apparently eluded police despite being on a watch list and appearing in a 2016 British television documentary called “The Jihadis Next Door.”
The growing attention to possible gaps in police monitoring – and cuts in law enforcement funding – has taken center stage in Britain’s political campaign two days before a tightening election called by May.
May told Sky News, “I absolutely recognize people’s concerns.” The Prime Minister said that MI5, the intelligence service, would launch a review into how the case was handled.
May set Thursday’s election in a bid to strengthen her hand in negotiations with the European Union over Britain’s exit from the bloc. But after Saturday’s rampage, May has faced tough questions over police funding cuts that her critics say could have stymied efforts to monitor suspects.
Even one of May’s allies, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, fanned the flames.
“People are going to look at the front pages today and they’re going to say ‘how on earth could we have let this guy or possibly more through the net? What happened?” he told Sky News.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan criticized the cuts to the police under the Conservative-led government and argued that London could lose front-line police officers if May’s Conservative Party triumphs in the election.
The Labour mayor told the BBC that the responsibility for the bloodshed lies with the attackers but said that “there’s no doubt that fewer police officers means we are in more danger.”
When asked if Britain should rescind the offer of a state visit to President Trump following Trump’s recent criticisms of Khan, the London mayor said he had not changed his view that a state visit was inappropriate.
In a separate appearance on ITV, Khan accused Trump of making “ignorant” comments about Muslims, but he insisted he did not want to engage in a war of words.
“We are not kids in playground,” Khan said. “He’s the president of the U.S.A. I’m too busy to respond to his tweets. Isn’t he busy?”
The two main candidates for prime minister – the incumbent May and the challenger Jeremy Corbyn – traded barbs over how security services can better protect the public after three mass-casualty attacks in as many months.
May, a Conservative, said that authorities will need greater powers to crack down on extremism and that Corbyn had blocked such efforts. Corbyn, the far-left leader of the opposition Labour Party, accused May of starving police and other security services of personnel and funds.
Both agreed that the country will have to make changes as security services – which for years successfully thwarted attacks on British soil – struggle to confront a threat that is growing in scale and tempo.
The agencies say they have disrupted 18 plots since 2013, including five in the last nine weeks.
“That is completely different to anything we have seen for a long time. As the prime minister has indicated, we’re going to need to do some things differently,” said Mark Rowley, Metropolitan police assistant commissioner and the country’s top counter-terrorism officer.
The identities of the three attackers fit a rough pattern. Much like the assailants in the two earlier attacks, these men, all Muslims, had British roots or residency. They lived in the same neighborhoods of east London, though in one case, not for very long. At least two appear to have been known to authorities, but apparently dismissed as peripheral subjects.
London’s Metropolitan Police identified the assailants as 27-year-old Butt, a British citizen who was born in Pakistan, who was a big fan of the Arsenal football team but who was investigated in 2015 after neighbors reported him as a possible extremist.
Police also named 30-year-old Rachid Redouane, who had claimed to be Moroccan and Libyan. According to Irish police sources, cited by the Guardian newspaper, Redouane was a Dublin-based pastry chef who moved to the Irish capital five years ago and only recently turned up in London.
The three men lived in the Barking area of east London, only a half-hour’s drive from London Bridge and Borough Market – the adjacent areas where victims were targeted Saturday night.
Butt was featured last year in a documentary on Britain’s Channel 4 called “The Jihadis Next Door.” But police said that they had no warning of a plot and that their investigation of Butt had been shelved.
Redouane had not been known to the security agencies, police officials in both Britain and Ireland said.
Police say they have 500 ongoing terrorism investigations and are keeping tabs on 3,000 individuals suspected of extremism. Investigations involving known plots, authorities say, take up the bulk of the security services’ resources.
The Islamic State claimed Sunday to have been behind the attack. But experts have cast doubt, noting that the group did not provide any details to prove its involvement. Similar claims in the past have been shown to be unreliable.
All three assailants in Saturday’s attack were fatally shot by police within eight minutes of the first emergency calls.
Saturday night’s attack injured dozens, including four police officers. Eighteen people remain in critical condition.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.