The horrifying events in Reading on Saturday evening are a brutal reminder that the threat of domestic terrorism has not gone away. Public attention has been focused elsewhere since February, when the previous such attack took place in south London. The stabbings in that incident were not fatal and its perpetrator, Sudesh Faraz Amman, was shot dead by police. In Reading three victims had no such escape: Monday morning at The Holt school in Wokingham began with tributes to its history teacher, James Furlong. A second victim was named as Joe Ritchie-Bennett, the third was David Wails.
The man being detained under terrorism powers on suspicion of carrying out the killings is Khairi Saadallah, 25, who was granted asylum in the UK after fleeing the Libyan civil war. Understood to have suffered from mental health difficulties, he had also served a short prison sentence. But unlike Sudesh Faraz Amman and last year’s London Bridge attacker, Usman Khan, Khairi Saadallah is not a convicted terrorist, although he was on the security services’ radar.
Until more is known about the suspect, and a motive is identified, speculation as to the causes of this tragedy serves little purpose. Not all knife attacks in public places are terror-related. Earlier this month two women were killed in a London park in a case that has received far less coverage, although police are still seeking their attacker. But it is not too soon to ask questions about the prison service and wider criminal justice system. That acts of such extreme violence have been committed by former prisoners on several recent occasions is obviously a cause for concern, even if the overall numbers are small. (Between 2013 and 2019, six convicted terrorists went on to commit a further terrorist offence after being released.)
Previously, ministers have sought to make political capital out of terrorist incidents, blaming their opponents. Coming as it did in the middle of December’s general election campaign, the London Bridge attack prompted a major row over who was responsible for the regime that led to Usman Khan being released without supervision. The measures that the government introduced after the election included a commitment to train specialist counter-terrorism probation officers, as well as keep terrorists locked up for longer. Presumably these plans were on put hold under lockdown conditions. Ministers should now explain how they plan to get these and other probation reforms moving. Of a prison population of around 80,000, about 230 are terrorists, the vast majority Islamic radicals although the number of jailed far-right extremists has risen sharply.
There could be questions too for the security services. In the aftermath of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, MI5 was criticised for acting “too slowly” in its dealings with the bomber, Salman Abedi, who was born in Manchester but had some involvement in the Libyan civil war. Appropriate scrutiny of all the relevant agencies is essential following any terror-related incident, and Boris Johnson must now allow parliament’s intelligence and security committee to reconvene – even if its delayed report into Russian interference in UK politics is expected to embarrass his party.
The people of Reading deserve all our sympathy. For such an attack to take place in a popular park on the longest day of the year, after three months of lockdown, can only compound their grief and shock. But we should remember too that such events remain highly unusual.