The terrorist who stabbed two people to death near London Bridge in 2019 had tricked a prison boss before the attack, an inquest jury has heard.
Homegrown terrorist Usman Khan had a brief conversation with Steve Machin, governor of counter-terrorism at HMP Whitemoor, at a prisoner education event at Fishmongers’ Hall where he would later fatally stab Cambridge graduates Jack Merritt, 25, and Saskia Jones, 23.
Khan had served eight years of a 21-year sentence for earlier terrorism offenses and was released from HMP Whitemoor in 2018.
During an inquest started on Wednesday, Machin told the jury that he briefly chatted with Khan when the pair bumped into each other at the “Learning Together” event, and Khan tried to hug him.
“[Khan] threw his arms open and stepped in for a hug, which felt a bit weird for me,” he said.
“I met him halfway, took one hand, and did a prisoner-style shoulder bump.”
He said Khan was initially quiet but then began to talk about life in prison.
“One thing he said made me stop and raise my eyebrows—he talked about things he had done, specifically imams, and said we need to get people not employed by prison in because imams hadn’t been able to alter his position of his religion,” Machin said.
“I raised my eyebrows and he quickly said, ‘Fortunately through these things [Learning Together], I have learned that violence isn’t the path.’”
Asked if he had reflected on his dealings with Khan, Machin said it was all he had done since.
On Thursday, Machin said he had also asked Khan why he wore an extra-large coat—which concealed a fake suicide belt—but thought Khan’s answer about dressing for the weather was “plausible.”
“I’m not in the same headspace as when I’m at work—I wasn’t there as a counter-terrorism governor, I was there as operational manager of HMP Whitemoor,” Machin said after being accused of dropping his guard by Nick Armstrong, who represents the families of Jones and Merritt.
“I couldn’t live my life expecting every encounter with the community or ex-offenders is going to lead to devastation, I couldn’t live with that level of paranoia,” Machin added.
Machin rejected Armstrong’s suggestion that Khan being an example of a “good news story” for rehabilitation had effectively “blunt his antennae” of concern.
“I saw him being involved [with Learning Together] as good, it hadn’t got to the point of a good news story,” Manchin said.
Regarding Khan’s early release from the prison, Machin said he was making progress.
Although there had been intelligence saying Khan was seeking “a return to his old ways,” Machin said that “certainly in his last six months to a year, they [reports of Khan’s links to religious bullying and gang culture in jail] tailed off in both the number and the tone.”
Machin agreed with the suggestion from Samantha Leek QC, for the Government, that prisoners sometimes report malicious or unwittingly false intelligence about another prisoner, in order to secure a move away for one of them.
“You can’t review intelligence at the same level as a piece of research,” Machin said. “You are looking to find overt intelligence.”
On Wednesday, Khan’s older brother, who can not be named, say his family was “truly sorry.”
“First all, sincere condolences to Jack and Saskia’s family. We are truly, truly sad of the events that happened,” he said, before giving evidence to the jury.
“Whoever’s been affected physically or mentally, we are really sorry as a family, really, really sad. I just wanted to get that off my chest,” he added.
The brother said the attack was “a total shock” to the family and that they would’ve been “the first ones to inform, to stop him in his tracks” if they noticed anything.
Armstrong showed the witness evidence of Khan talking effusively about Merritt during an interview with Learning Together staff in March 2019, describing him as “deeply disturbed.”
“He (Khan) was a nasty, violent, self-regarding piece of work,” Armstrong said, adding that “all the signs” were there, but his family “saw none of that.”
Khan made repeated threats to set off the fake suicide belt after stabbing Merritt, Jones, and several others, and was shot dead by police moments later.
PA and The Associated Press contributed to this report.