A former violent criminal who converted to Islam and kept out of trouble for more than a decade, the killer who struck Britain’s parliament last week was probably a “lone wolf”, self-radicalized by material on the internet, investigators say.
Police say Khalid Masood, who tried to put his troubled past behind him by turning to religion, had copied the low cost, low tech attacks espoused by Islamic State. But investigators have found nothing yet to link him to extremist groups at home or militants abroad.
“The biggest question is: why did this man become a killer,” said a European source with knowledge of the investigation. “And that is the most difficult question to answer because radicalization is so complex and nuanced.
“One serious line of inquiry is that he did what he did because of something he saw on the internet.”
The day after last Wednesday’s attack by parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May said the 52-year-old had come to the attention of spy agency MI5 as a peripheral figure in an investigation into violent extremists, sparking concern the authorities should have known he was a potential threat.
But sources familiar with the inquiry have rejected those fears. They told Reuters he had appeared on MI5’s radar when they were looking into “multiple plots” in Luton, a town 35 miles (55 km) north of London, where he was living about five years ago.
Masood’s name came up in a probe into a network suspected of helping people travel from Britain to jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a European government source said, but nothing they have found ties him to any group, faction or known radical preachers.
Instead, investigators suspect it was reading and watching extremist material online that led him to plow a rented Hyundai car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge last week killing three people, before charging into the walled grounds of parliament and stabbing a policeman to death.
He was shot dead after an attack that lasted 82 seconds.
“I have no evidence he discussed this with others. Whilst I have found no evidence of an association with IS or AQ, there is clearly an interest in Jihad,” said Neil Basu, Senior National Coordinator for UK Counter Terrorism Policing, referring to Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The police investigation also strongly points to Masood being a so-called “lone wolf”, carrying out the kind of attack Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani called for when the group was at the peak of its power in late 2014.
Since last Wednesday, police have arrested 12 people close to Masood in connection with the attack. Just one remains in custody and all but one of the others have been told they face no further action.
However, media reports say Masood accessed the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp moments before the attack, leaving open the possibility someone else could have been involved.
“Whilst we believe at this stage Masood acted alone in his execution of the attack, our investigation continues to establish whether there are any others involved in any way and I do emphasize this is a live investigation,” Craig Mackey, acting head of London police, said on Wednesday.
When and how he became he became radicalized is now the main focus of the investigation. The authorities say stints he spent in prison are probably not the answer, since he was last released more than a decade ago.
Senior counter-terrorism figures have warned in the past that some people had become radicalized in just weeks via material they accessed over the internet, and said IS and others deliberately targeted those they saw as vulnerable.
They point to cases such as that of Roshonara Choudhry who went from a high-flying university student to stabbing a British lawmaker in 2010 just months after she started listening to online radical sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a Web-savvy U.S.-born Yemeni al Qaeda preacher who was later killed in a drone strike.
Farasat Latif, a former director of an English language school in Luton where Masood taught, said he had shown no inclination toward violent jihadism at the time he would have been on MI5’s radar in about 2012.
“He was more apolitical than any Muslim I’ve known. There was no interest at all,” Latif told Reuters . “I just remember him being polite, pleasant, friendly, and inquisitive about Islam.”
Latif said he has encountered radicals before: he knew Taymour Abdulwahab, a Swedish national who briefly lived and worshipped at Latif’s mosque in Luton before carrying out a suicide bombing in Stockholm in 2010.
“I have come across a number of people who have gone on to do some stupid things, and with some you’re not surprised to a certain extent,” he said. “When I knew (Masood), he wasn’t a violent radical.”