The man who went on a deadly stabbing spree in central London Friday started the attack at an event for a prisoner rehabilitation group that had touted him as a success story.
Usman Khan, 28, began stabbing people at Cambridge University’s Learning Together conference while threatening to blow up the venue with an explosives vest that turned out to be fake. Authorities have said the stabbing was a terrorist attack.
During the rampage, Khan killed two Cambridge graduates who were staffing the conference: Saskia Jones, 23, and Jack Merritt, 25, an employee of the school’s criminology department. Three other people sustained non-life-threatening injuries.
Toby Williamson, the boss of the venue, Fishmongers’ Hall, told the BBC “the building turned into a nightmare.”
After two male staffers forced Khan outside with chairs, a fire extinguisher and narwhal tusks, which were hanging on the wall, a group of bystanders subdued him on the London Bridge. Police then shot him dead at close range.
Stephen Toope, the vice chancellor of Cambridge, said Khan’s victims had been taking part in an event “to mark five years of the university’s Learning Together program,” which pairs criminals with law students to study.
“This is an attack on our community and it was intended, in such, to produce a form of terror and sadness — and it has clearly done that,” he said.
He said the fact that Merritt was killed by someone he was trying to help “is the greatest tragedy of all.”
Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, remembered
The families of both Jones and Merritt released statements paying tribute to them.
Jones’ family, who are from Stratford-upon-Avon, England, said their daughter had a “great passion” for supporting victims of criminal justice and “was generous to the point of always wanting to see the best in all people.”
The final post visible on Jones’ Twitter account, from last March, is an endorsement of Learning Together’s approach to “#SocialJustice.”
''Don't raise your voice, improve your argument'' = favourite quote of the #LearningTogether course, highlighting the issue of voice. #Socialjustice is evidently better achieved through the use of good arguments based on evidence & experience. #strongertogether @JustisTogether
— Saskia Jones (@SRJ_2015) March 27, 2018
Merritt’s family, who are from Cottenham, England, said: “Jack lived his principles; he believed in redemption and rehabilitation, not revenge, and he always took the side of the underdog.”
They said he “died doing what he loved,” and added that he would not want his death to hurt the cause of criminal justice reform.
“We know Jack would not want this terrible, isolated incident to be used as a pretext by the government for introducing even more draconian sentences on prisoners, or for detaining people in prison for longer than necessary,” the statement read.
Indeed, Merritt’s Twitter account is filled with advocacy for criminal justice reform and other liberal causes, as well as criticism of Britain’s conservative government.
In 2017, Merritt shared a link to an op-ed arguing that the United States is guilty of a racial “double standard” in its rhetoric about terrorism. He repeated the headline — “What’s a ‘lone wolf’? It’s the special name we give white terrorists” — in apparent approval.
What's a 'lone wolf'? It's the special name we give white terrorists | Moustafa Bayoumi https://t.co/U4aCfOEJga
— Jack Merritt (@JackmerrittJack) October 4, 2017
On Friday, though, a number of U.K. outlets described Khan as a “lone wolf.”
Usman Khan promised to be a “good Muslim”
Khan was released from prison last December halfway through a 16-year sentence for plotting a terrorist attack. He was one of a series of terrorists connected to British Islamist Anjem Choudary who went free in 2018.
Both before and after his incarceration, Khan resisted being seen as a dangerous Islamic extremist. In a 2008 BBC interview, he complained to about “the labels they’re putting on us.”
Noting that he was “born and bred in England,” he claimed, “I ain’t no terrorist.”
WATCH: Usman Khan, the Terrorist behind Friday’s London Bridge terror attack, told the BBC in 2008 — “I ain’t no terorrist.” pic.twitter.com/i8kYtn20tW
— Imam of Peace (@Imamofpeace) December 1, 2019
After his conviction in 2012, Khan asked his lawyer to be enrolled in a de-radicalization program to “prove to the authorities” that he was no longer “immature,” according to a letter obtained by ITV.
He said he wanted to “learn Islam and its teachings” through a course run by the Home Office and to “live my life as a good Muslim” and “as a good citizen of Britain.”
Khan later appeared as a “case study” in a report by Learning Together, the BBC reported. He also wrote a poem for a separate brochure expressing gratitude for a laptop the program gave him.
“I cannot send enough thanks to the entire Learning Together team and all those who continue to support this wonderful community,” he said.
Following his release, Khan reportedly spoke at a fundraising dinner for Learning Together.
Boris Johnson promises to crack down
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Neil Basu said Saturday that Khan’s release had been subject to an “extensive list of license conditions” and “to the best of my knowledge, he was complying with those conditions.”
Basu also said there was no evidence to suggest anyone else was involved in the attack and police were working “flat out” to try to establish the “full circumstances” of the stabbing. Over the weekend counterterrorism officers searched a house in Stafford linked to Khan and another property in neighboring Stoke-on-Trent, where he grew up.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday told the BBC that it was “repulsive” that someone as “dangerous” as Khan could be freed from prison after “only serving eight years.” He blamed legislation introduced under “a leftie government,” referring to an automatic release scheme introduced by Labour.
Johnson said that 74 former prisoners would have the conditions of their early release for terrorism crimes reviewed by the Justice Ministry “to ensure there is no threat to the public.”
“Now that I am prime minister I’m going to take steps to make sure that people are not released early when they commit … serious sexual, violent or terrorist offenses,” he said. “I absolutely deplore the that fact that this man was out on the streets … and we are going to take action against it.”
For their part, Labour leaders blamed budget cuts for “missed chances to intervene.”
On Sunday night, Staffordshire Police said a 34-year-old man was arrested in connection with the Justice Ministry review. He was suspected of preparation of terrorist acts, but there was no evidence tying him to the London Bridge attack, police said.
On Nov. 4, the U.K. threat level had been downgraded from “severe to substantial,” meaning attacks were deemed “likely” rather than “highly likely.”