How did the Texas synagogue terrorist slip through the cracks?

Just how many databases was Malik Faisal Akram on? It turns out that the 44-year-old Briton – who was shot dead by an FBI Hostage Rescue Team last week as he held four people at gunpoint in a Texas synagogue – was no stranger to Britain’s creaking protective services. The US is now asking the UK to explain how Akram was able to leave our shores and enter the country two weeks ago to carry out an anti-Semitic terrorist attack without any flags being raised.

The information that is slowly emerging is not encouraging. MI5 investigated Akram in 2020 as a possible terrorist and closed his case after a month. He was well known to the police as well – having been convicted of offences involving violent disorder and drugs. After one of those sentences he was released on licence and later recalled to prison for breaching his conditions. He served two spells behind bars and had a further period on remand in HMP Liverpool where he was reported by the Imam for ‘concerning behaviour’ and disrupting Friday prayers. He was banned from a court for making offensive remarks in praise of the 9/11 Twin Towers attackers. He was said to have been a frequent visitor to Pakistan with connections to a controversial Islamic sect, Tablighi Jamaat. And we now understand he was twice referred to the Counter Terrorism Prevent programme – as recently as 2019 – which screens people thought to be at risk of being drawn into ideological violence. That’s one hell of a breadcrumb trail.

Or is it? After the security service conducted its initial investigation without finding any national security risk Akram became a ‘closed subject of interest’ alongside 20,000 to 40,000 other individuals in Britain. There is an argument that our scarce security resources mean that the authorities have to focus on the 3,000 people who are considered to be an active risk. While there are periodic reviews of those on the ‘closed subject’ list the authorities can’t conceivably prioritise these cases over those being tracked 24 hours a day who might be on the verge of carrying out an attack. This reasoning would hold more water though if Akram didn’t have such an incriminating back story which ought to have littered his threat profile with red flags.

In their investigation two years ago the security service seem to have found a man who already had all the hallmarks of our latest security scourge: the lone actor terrorist. He was by all accounts psychologically unstable, he had been thwarted in love and life, he’d had extensive contact with our criminal justice system and had publicly demonstrated behaviours and beliefs that endorsed a jihadist worldview to an extent that it was reportedly picked up on by authorities on two separate occasions.

It seems incredible that with this number of concerns, Akram could simply step on a plane, presumably lie on his entry forms, and set off for the US completely unimpeded. Two sets of borders were breached and the result was a terrifying ten hour ordeal for innocent worshippers before his deranged antics were terminated with extreme prejudice.

We must be able to do better than this.

There are several questions which now need to be asked. Akram’s case files will be spread across a bewildering stew of case management systems run by an alphabet soup of different protective services. Were they talking to each other? Are they even able to? Was the initial screening by MI5 adequate and were its conclusions to close the book on him rational? Were other signs missed? Akram stated in an enraged and barely coherent telephone rant to his brother during the hostage incident that he had been ‘praying’ for his attack for two years. That will have coincided with the time he was under scrutiny. The performance of the controversial Prevent programme must also be examined. What was the quality of their assessment? And what was the competence of the people carrying it out? (Often Prevent screening is done by local authority officials.) Why was he not considered for the higher risk ‘Channel’ intervention programme, despite apparently being screened twice? The Prevent programme is currently subject to a government review which is expected to report shortly and call for sweeping changes to make it more focused and professional.

Prevent has some quite brilliant practitioners working for it but it seems to have drifted away from its primary role as an arm of our counter terrorism strategy to protect national security. Indeed, some of its practitioners would have difficulty even seeing it in those terms. Those suspected of being at risk of being drawn into extreme right-wing terrorism now dominate Prevent business despite the completely asymmetrical threat profile. We need to be asking questions about that as well and how a focus on much less potent extreme right wing terrorism might be distracting the security services. The body count does not lie.

Crucially, the numbers of referrals to Prevent from people with mental health issues has rocketed. Last August the police lead for Prevent, Chief Constable Simon Cole, estimated that 70 per cent of those being screened had some form of mental or developmental impairment. This might be relevant or wholly irrelevant to capacity and capability to carry out terrorist acts but it is clear that often the first attention these individuals get is when they pose a potential risk to public safety. This is surely not the best entry point for people who should have had professional mental health support prior to referral – arguably a better way of diverting them earlier and more successfully from a path to violence.

Finally, what if this is yet another example of disguised compliance? What if the numerous multi-agency professionals who had contact with Akram as he devolved into violent extremism were all deceived by him? There will have been face to face encounters. With the benefit of hindsight, was there a pattern of deceit and concealment that has become a chilling feature of other terrorist outrages? Once again our protective agencies will be marking their own homework.

This troubling case highlights once more the need for a single executive terrorist risk management agency. As long as we have a parish council approach to national security, people like Malik Akram will continue to fall through the net. More people have been arrested this week as police here scramble to ascertain whether he had assistance in his terrorist plot. It’s an embarrassing situation for the country. Perhaps it wasn’t feasibly possible to stop Akram until he met a bullet two weeks ago. Perhaps though he was just hiding in plain sight.


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