- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2017

Countries across Europe tightened security Thursday as investigators in London identified a 52-year-old British-born Muslim man as the attacker who carried out Wednesday’s rampage on Westminster Bridge and the grounds of Parliament.

Authorities said Khalid Masood, who lived in the British city of Birmingham, had a history of criminal convictions and was once investigated — but ultimately cleared Britain’s domestic counterintelligence agency MI5 — as a possible Islamic extremist.

The Islamic State terrorist group claimed responsibility Thursday for the assault in London, in which Masood mowed down pedestrians with a sport utility vehicle before fatally stabbing a police officer in an attack that injured more than 40 people and left three bystanders dead, including an American tourist from Utah. London police said late Thursday that a 75-year-old man injured in the attack on Westminster Bridge had died of his wounds, the latest victim of the attack. Several of the wounded were still in critical condition.

Investigators were scrambling Thursday night to assess the legitimacy of the Islamic State’s claim as well as the extent to which Masood — a man reported to have a wife and young child in Britain — had any direct ties to the terrorist group also known as ISIS and ISIL.

Eight other suspects, none who has been named publicly, were arrested in the fast-paced probe Thursday, as Prime Minister Theresa May and other top government officials across Europe sought to calm heightened concerns about the prospect of follow-on attacks.

Counterterrorism authorities in Belgium tightened security in the port city of Antwerp after a Frenchman drove his car at a high speed through a busy shopping area, forcing pedestrians to jump out of the way.

While Belgian news reports said the driver was found to be under the influence of alcohol and in possession of drugs, the incident sent nerves soaring. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said, “We remain vigilant. Our security services have done excellent work.” He expressed condolences over the attack in Britain, saying the two nations are “working in close cooperation with our security and intelligence services.”

But the assurances of higher security come as European nations continue to struggle to deploy adequate resources to confront what U.S. intelligence officials have for more than a year been characterizing as a rising threat posed by locally radicalized extremists as well as Islamic State fighters and other European-born extremists returning home from jihad in Syria and Iraq. The low-tech methods of recent attacks — employing knives, commercial trucks and cars instead of guns and bombs — poses another security challenge.

Analysts and intelligence officials say some 5,000 Western Europeans traveled to the Middle East nations to wage jihad in recent years, with some 3,700 coming from just four nations: France, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

France has kept thousands of military troops deployed around its interior since the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks in which Islamic State loyalists killed 130 people. In December, the French government moved to extend through July a state of emergency that allows the president’s office to authorize home searches of suspected extremists without warrants.

Security also remains tight in Germany, where authorities have identified 602 individuals as “Islamist threats,” according to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which carried a lead article on its website Thursday that said some 300 of the individuals live in Syria or Iraq, often as fighters for groups such as the Islamic State.

‘Lone wolf’ attacks

Wednesday’s assault in London, meanwhile, came on the anniversary of coordinated Islamic State suicide bombings that rocked the Brussels subway and airport one year ago.

But it bore the hallmarks of more simplified “lone wolf” style extremist attacks in several European cities over the past year — with a vehicle in a busy area bent on mowing down pedestrians.

Large trucks were used in deadly attacks that rocked the French coastal city of Nice, where 85 people were killed in July, and in the German capital of Berlin, where 12 people were killed.

London’s attack was on a smaller scale, with the assailant believed to have rented the SUV that wreaked havoc on the Westminster Bridge near British Parliament before he was shot dead by police.

Authorities identified him moments after Parliament held a moment of silence and reconvened less than 24 hours after the attack, which forced a lockdown of the U.K. government’s seat of power.

Mrs. May delivered a defiant message to the House of Commons, declaring simply: “We are not afraid, and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism.”

The police officer killed during the attack was 48-year-old Keith Palmer. At day’s end, a large crowd gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square for a candlelit vigil as online donations for his family reached $375,000, according to British media.

The civilians killed were Kurt W. Cochran, a tourist in his 50s from Utah, and 43-year-old British teacher Aysha Frade. Mr. Cochran’s wife, Melissa, suffered serious injuries in the attack.

Mrs. May did not say the attacker’s name in her remarks, but revealed that he was once investigated for extremism links before authorities ultimately concluded that he was a peripheral figure.

British police said Masood was born in December 1964 in the city of Kent and was known by a number of aliases, but “was not the subject of any current investigations” before Wednesday.

British terrorism analysts acknowledged surprise at Masood’s age.

Shashank Joshi, a researcher with the security think tank the Royal United Services Institute, told The Guardian newspaper that untangling the motivations for radicalization is always perplexing. “Masood is unusual,” Mr. Joshi said, “in that only a minority become radicalized over the age of 30.”

A statement by Scotland Yard police headquarters in London said “there was no prior intelligence about [Masood‘s] intent to mount a terrorist attack” and that he had no previous convictions relating to terrorism.

The statement said he had a criminal record for drugs, weapons possession and “other public order” offenses. His first conviction dated back to 1983, and his last was in 2003 for “possession of a knife.”

A woman who claimed to have lived for about five months next door to Masood in Birmingham, said he had a wife and young child and appeared like a “normal family man who liked to take care of his garden.”

Iwona Romek, the woman, took one look at a photo of the attacker on a stretcher and said “that is 100 percent him,” according to The Associated Press, which noted that the home where Masood lived until he abruptly moved just after Christmas was raided by police late Wednesday.

Ms. Romek said Masood would walk the child, around 6 years old, to school in the morning, and that he rarely left in the evening. But one day she saw him packing their belongings, and then they were gone just months after moving in.

Dan Boylan contributed to this article, which is based on wire service reports.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide