By Jamie Dettmer
The man held for the fatal stabbing last week of a British lawmaker had been referred to the British government’s anti-extremism program, called Prevent, because of his radical Islamist views, but the country’s security services, including MI5 – Britain’s domestic intelligence agency – had not deemed him a serious threat requiring monitoring, confirmed British officials.
Police have not released the name of the suspect, but local media have identified him as Ali Harbi Ali, a 25-year-old British national of Somali descent. Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported that the suspect’s father, Harbi Ali Kullane, a former adviser to Somalia’s prime minister, said British counter-terrorism police had visited him at his home in north London.
“I’m feeling very traumatized. It’s not something that I expected or even dreamed of,” the suspect’s father told the newspaper following the murder Friday of Conservative MP David Amess.
The lawmaker was stabbed multiple times while meeting with constituents at a church hall an hour’s drive east of London. The Metropolitan Police have confirmed early investigations of the slaying suggest “a potential motivation linked to Islamist extremism,” but have so far refrained from going into any details publicly.
Ali was born in London. Many members of his wider family live in Somalia, where his aunt is head of a security think tank in Mogadishu. Ali’s uncle is Somalia’s ambassador to China.
Britain’s security and counter-terror agencies have warned cabinet ministers of a possible wave of future attacks by what they term “bedroom radicals,” lone wolf militants radicalized online during pandemic lockdowns. Investigators are trying to establish whether Ali fits that profile and whether his radicalization intensified during the lockdown.
They have so far found no evidence that he traveled overseas to train, a British official told VOA. The Sun newspaper quoted security sources as saying that Ali became increasingly radicalized after watching militant videos on YouTube.
The 69-year-old Amess is the second British MP to have been murdered in the past five years, and his death has prompted nationwide horror and outrage. Politicians across political divides praised him as a hard-working “gentleman MP,” one who eschewed a ministerial career in favor of focusing on the needs of his constituents. An independent-minded Conservative, he was widely known as a campaigner for animal welfare.
Dozens of mourners attended a special church service Sunday in memory of the MP, one of the country’s longest serving lawmakers, who was first elected to the House of Commons in 1983. Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a rare joint appearance with Keir Starmer, the leader of Britain’s main opposition party, at the scene of the attack, where both laid flowers.
Johnson described Amess, a father of five and a devout Catholic, as a “fine parliamentarian and a much-moved colleague and friend.”
Amess’s family said in a statement released Sunday: “Our hearts are shattered.” They added, “We are trying to understand why this awful thing has occurred. Nobody should die in that way. Please let some good come from this tragedy. We are absolutely broken, but we will survive and carry on for the sake of a wonderful and inspiring man.”
Ali was arrested inside the church hall as paramedics battled to save the life of the MP. He used his phone immediately after the attack, but it is unclear whether he contacted anyone or was filming the scene of the crime. Police sources say he has been cooperating with investigators. He is being held under the Terrorism Act.
Counter-terror efforts questioned
Security officials told VOA under the condition of anonymity that the attack had been planned over several weeks and Amess’s suspected attacker made an appointment to see the MP, saying he was moving into the area from London. “At the moment there is not a specific reason why Amess was targeted — Ali was geared to attack any lawmaker, it was just he managed to get to Amess first,” said a security official.
The referral by a teacher five years ago of Amess’ alleged killer to the Prevent program has prompted questions over the effectiveness of the de-radicalization scheme, which has been the subject of an ongoing review since January. A former counter-terror commander, Richard Walton, called on the government to “invest more” in the Prevent scheme so it is better equipped to “detect the signs and symptoms of radicalized individuals.”
The security services have raised their fears about a potential wave of attacks by so-called bedroom radicals for weeks. In September the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick, publicly cautioned that the pandemic had left many more people at risk of radicalization because militants had exploited the social isolation of lockdowns to recruit and proselytize.
As police investigators question Ali and sift through evidence, the country’s politicians are debating about how to tighten security. Amess’s murder has underlined the potential danger Britain’s lawmakers face. Friday’s stabbing attack by a lone assailant bore striking similarities to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June 2016. Cox was about to hold meetings with constituents when she was shot and stabbed by a subsequently convicted far right militant.
In 2010 Labour MP Stephen Timms was injured in a stabbing attack by an Islamist when he was holding a regular meeting with constituents.
Some British lawmakers are likely to be offered police protection when meeting voters, Home Secretary Priti Patel acknowledged during several Sunday television appearances. Security officials are drawing up plans for a new minimum package of safety measures all police forces must offer lawmakers when they are away from the House of Commons.
Not all MPs are happy with the idea of having police present during their meetings with local voters and fear it might undermine a tradition they hold dear of constituents having easy access to them.
Britain’s Justice Secretary, Dominic Raab, said Monday that online hate towards MPs is “out of control.” “The elephant in the room in all this is the online hate that we all get,” he told broadcaster Sky News.
Raab echoed the fear of security services that the pandemic and lockdowns had not helped the situation. “There is certainly an element of more people who are at-risk and vulnerable because they’ve been spending more time online,” he added.