Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism chief today urged Londoners to be on the alert for potential extremists as he warned a new attack on the capital is likely as the country emerges from lockdown.
Commander Richard Smith said counter-terrorism officers and MI5 are pursuing “800 different leads and investigations” into possible deadly plots and that the public’s help in providing further tip-offs was “vital” in preventing more killings.
He added there was a “real threat” that had “not gone away” during the pandemic and that the danger came from both lone jihadis and terrorists radicalised here, as well as others directed or inspired by Islamic State supporters overseas.
He said officers were also concerned about the risk of vulnerable people being radicalised online during the coronavirus lockdown, out of sight of teachers, health workers or others who might normally raise the alarm.
His comments follow the life sentence handed to 28-year-old Mohiussunnath Chowdhury at Woolwich crown court last month for plotting to attack last year’s Pride event in London and the jailing of Safiyya Shaikh, 37, for her plan to bomb St Paul’s Cathedral and a hotel this Easter.
Chowdhury, who had boasted of “deceiving” a jury to acquit him over an earlier attack on soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, had tried to buy a gun to carry out his murderous intentions, while Shaikh, who was also jailed for life at the Old Bailey, had posted vile images online in a bid to inspire others to kill.
Commander Smith said the convictions of Chowdhury and Shaikh highlighted the continuing threat and that an attack on a crowded place or other London site was a risk as the lockdown restrictions are eased and numbers on the streets increase.
“Despite all the other changes we have seen, there is still a real threat. An attack is likely,” he told the Standard.
“We are following 800 different leads and investigations at present to keep people safe from terrorism and a very substantial proportion of those will have a London element.
"As we’ve seen with the attacks at Fishmongers’ Hall last November and again on Streatham High Road in February, London is and has been a target. Terrorists focus on the capital city for lots of obvious reasons.”
He added: “The public are very much our eyes and ears on this and so if they feel something is not right and are concerned, my message is always be vigilant and if you see something you are concerned about tell us.
"We will investigate because our aim is to keep people safe. We will continue to do that as thoroughly as we possibly can with our colleagues from MI5. The public are absolutely critical to our counter-terrorism effort. The information they give us is vital to preventing attacks in the capital.”
Commander Smith said police “attention is very much on the growth of the Right-wing” but that supporters of Islamic State, including those overseas, and al-Qaeda remained a potent danger.
On IS, he said: “There’s a very clear message — they remain a threat and that threat is not constrained to overseas.”
He went on: “In an increasingly connected world it’s more difficult to differentiate what is entirely domestic and what has an overseas element. There are some individuals who may be directed by terrorist organisations based abroad.
"But equally there will be individuals inspired by what they see online which is being posted either in this country or elsewhere, and people who will act entirely of their own accord as lone actors.”
He said an additional reason for today’s warning was a decline in lockdown of the number of alerts being received via the Government’s Prevent scheme for countering radicalisation.
He said this meant there was a risk some people had become radicalised out of sight. “We know terrorists and other radicalisers will always look for opportunities to exploit people and to spread their ideology. Lockdown may have provided more of those opportunities as other activities were more curtailed,” he said.
“Part of our concern is the number of people who have been locked down away from public services, away from people who might have identified behaviour of concern. All of those people will still have been able to access material online.
"As we saw with Safiyyah Shaikh’s sentencing recently not only was she planning an attack in this country but she was also posting some quite horrendous material online with the intent of radicalising others.”
As well as the foiled plots cited by Commander Smith, London has also suffered two attacks in the past nine months. The first was at Fishmongers’ Hall last November when freed terrorist convict Usman Khan, 28, killed two people with a knife before being shot dead. \
The other was carried out in Streatham in February by 20-year-old Sudesh Amman, another released terror offender. He injured three before police shot him dead.
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