Politics

Libyan held over Reading multiple stabbing ‘known to security services’

The suspect in an alleged terror attack that left a teacher and two others dead was known to security services and other authorities, it emerged on Sunday.

Khairi Saadallah, the 25-year-old Libyan refugee held over the stabbings in a Reading park, was on the radar of MI5 in the middle of last year, sources told the Guardian.

He was under investigation as a person who might travel abroad “for extremist reasons”, but sources indicated that the inquiry was closed relatively quickly without any action taken as no genuine threat or immediate risk was identified. Intelligence agencies believe Saadallah had mental health problems, the sources said.

There was no immediate evidence that the Reading attack was underpinned by an allegiance to Islamic State or al-Qaida, although investigations are ongoing. Police said they believed the attacker was acting alone.

Boris Johnson hinted at a fresh crackdown on terror suspects when he said the government was ready to act on any lessons that emerge from the tragedy. The prime minister and other leading public figures condemned the violence and expressed condolences to victims relatives.

Among the three people killed in the attack shortly before 7pm in Forbury Gardens was a local secondary school teacher, James Furlong, 36. On Sunday evening his parents, Gary and Janet, paid tribute to “a wonderful man … beautiful, intelligent, honest and fun … the best son, brother, uncle and partner you could wish for”.

Colleagues and pupils parents at Holt school in Wokingham, near Reading, described the head of history, government and politics as “passionate”, “gentle” and “caring”.

The school wrote to pupils families to notify them that Furlong had been caught up in the attack. Lessons on Monday have been cancelled for all year groups, with counsellors on site for students and staff to seek support.

Three other people were injured in the attack, which lasted less than five minutes. Two were hospitalised, one of whom has since been discharged and the other of whom described as stable on Sunday.

Saadallah was initially arrested on suspicion of murder, with police not treating the incident as terrorism, but he has now been rearrested under Section 41 of the Terrorism Act 2000, giving police greater powers of detention.

Witnesses described horrific scenes as a knife-wielding attacker stabbed people in the park, which is popular with families, especially amid coronavirus lockdown measures. Thames Valley police said they had detained and arrested the suspect within five minutes of the first call at 6.56pm.

As the police investigation continued on Sunday, it emerged Saadallah, who was granted asylum in the UK, was previously on the radar of the security services. He is also understood to have served prison sentences for relatively minor offences not related to terrorism.

The head of counter-terrorism policing, Metropolitan police assistant commissioner Neil Basu, sought to reassure the public that the attack was an isolated attack, with no accomplices being looked for.

He said: “From our inquiries so far, officers have found nothing to suggest that there was anyone else involved in this attack and presently we are not looking for anyone else in relation to this incident.

“Although the motivation for this horrific act is far from certain, counterterrorism policing have taken responsibility for leading the investigation.”

There were many witnesses to the attacks, which took place in the central Reading park which is home of the Maiwand Lion statue, the image of which has been adopted by Reading football club and the Reading Post newspaper.

A police officer is said to have tackled the suspected attacker to the ground while bystanders attempted to give CPR before paramedics arrived.

Lawrence Wort, 20, a personal trainer, said he was about 10 metres from the attack. “The park was pretty full, a lot of people sat around drinking with friends, when one lone person walked through, suddenly shouted some unintelligible words and went around a large group of around 10, trying to stab them,” he told reporters.

“He stabbed three of them, severely in the neck, and under the arms, and then turned and started running towards me, and we turned and started running. When he realised that he couldnt catch us, he tried to stab another group sat down. He got one person in the back of the neck and then when he realised everyone was starting to run, he ran out the park.”

Brendan Healy, 55, gave CPR to another man while receiving instructions from medics over the phone, and described seeing another man who had apparently been stabbed in the eye. “There were people prostrate on the grass,” he said of the aftermath of the attack.

If confirmed as a terrorist offence, the attack would be the fourth in the UK since November, when Usman Khan killed two people at Fishmongers Hall near London Bridge. There have since been terrorist attacks in Whitemoor prison in January and on Streatham High Street, in the capital, in February. The terror threat level remains “substantial”.

In a statement recorded in Downing Street, the prime minister said: “If there are lessons that we need to learn about how we handle such cases, how we handle the events leading up to such cases, we will learn those lessons, and we will not hesitate to take action where necessary.”

He added: “If there are changes that need to be made to our legal system to stop such events happening again, we will not hesitate to take that action – as we have before, you will recall, over the automatic early release of terrorist offenders.”

The home secretary, Priti Patel, who prior to the Reading attack had asked officials to draw up reforms of the way foreign national offenders can be deported, said: “This evening we saw a senseless attack on people simply enjoying a Saturday evening with family and friends. My heart, prayers and thoughts are with all of those affected and to the people of Reading who will be deeply shocked and concerned by this terrible incident.”

Patel was said to be up with officials into the early hours of Sunday morning to understand the suspects full immigration status and criminal background. “The event will embolden our plans to reform the asylum system and speed up deportations for foreign national offenders through legislation, which will likely be opposed by the opposition,” a Whitehall source said.

She will visit Reading on Monday to receive a briefing from the chief constable of Thames Valley Police and meet officers who responded on Saturday evening.

Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust declined to comment on reports that the suspect was being treated for mental health conditions. A statement from David Townsend, chief operating officer, said: “On behalf of everyone at Berkshire Healthcare, I would like to express our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those who sadly died at Forbury Gardens in Reading yesterday.

“Our thoughts are with everyone affected by this incident, including those members of the public who provided first aid at the scene, and the police officers who responded so quickly. As this is an ongoing police investigation, we are not able to provide any information.”

Flowers and tributes were laid at the site on Sunday, and civic leaders expressed their shock that such an attack could take place in Reading, which has a population of 340,000. Its last terror attack was in 1993, when a bomb planted by the IRA blew up near the train station. No one was hurt.

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