UK Terror Attack: Looking for Links to the U.S.

Photo: AP/Alastair Grant

In the wake of London’s recent terrorist attack, United States intelligence and security agencies are working around the clock to share information across the pond and at home, all the while looking for ways to learn from this incident and potentially reprioritize efforts related to domestic threats.

“Right now, FBI agents and analysts responsible for counterterrorism are working 24-7. The battle rhythm is very high. You’d almost think the attack happened in our country,” John Perren, who served as the Assistant Director for the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate, told The Cipher Brief.

At least seven people were killed and dozens injured on Saturday night when a van rammed into pedestrians on London Bridge and then continued onto Borough Market, where three attackers emerged with knives and stabbed people in the busy area of South London. Police then shot dead the assailants.

Investigating any potential connections with this terrorist attack and the U.S. will be critical, Todd Rosenblum, former acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, noted.

“Our Intelligence Community, especially experts in digital information, will surge to see if there are any known linkages to the homeland. The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) would take the lead in working with state, local, private sector, faith-based and community organizations to harden potential targets at home and see if there is more to learn from these vital partnerships,” he said.

The Met’s Counter Terrorism Command has released the names of the three attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt and Rachid Redouane, both of Barking, East London, and Youssef Zaghba of East London, an Italian national of Moroccan descent. Zaghba and Redouane, who had claimed to be Moroccan and Libyan, were not previously known to authorities.

Butt, 27, was a British citizen born in Pakistan and known to police and MI5. He had appeared in a British television documentary in 2016 called The Jihadis Next Door, The Guardian reported, and a former friend claimed to have contacted authorities after Butt had begun following Ahmad Musa Jibril, a Palestinian-American radical cleric based in Michigan, online.

According to police, “there was no intelligence to suggest that this attack was being planned and the investigation had been prioritized accordingly.”

“The police and our partners are doing everything we can across the country to help prevent further attacks and protect the public from harm,” Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley said. “At any one time MI5 and police are conducting around 500 active investigations, involving 3,000 subjects of interest. Additionally, there are around 20,000 individuals who are former subjects of interest, whose risk remains subject to review by MI5 and its partners.”

Police have staged several raids since Saturday’s attack, detaining a number of individuals as part of the investigation. But all those detained have been since released without charge. ISIS on Sunday claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack came just days ahead of Thursday’s general election in the U.K. and marked the third terrorist incident in the country in the space of three month following a similar attack in March where a man ploughed into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London and then stabbed to death a policeman, and the May suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester that killed 22 children and adults.

Following leaks to U.S. media after the Manchester attack, President Donald Trump called for the Department of Justice “to launch a complete review of this matter.” Britain and the U.S. — along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand — are members of the “Five Eyes” alliance, a group of countries that share valuable intelligence information.

“FBI agents know it’s important that we don’t look like we’re leaking anything,” Perren said. “The British police are sharing, but I would hope it would be with complete compartmentalization. You need time to develop leads into whatever that network was, to make sure you take them all out, to make sure you don’t have another attack.”

In the U.S., information sharing across intelligence and law enforcement agencies, both at home and with partners, will be of the highest priority. “The whole Intelligence Community right now is exchanging information at a ferocious speed,” he said.

Typically, after taking the immediate steps of determining and then sharing what information is known and unknown, policymakers and analysts will gather for a briefing and discussion at the White House “about what to do, what to say, and whom to speak to,” Rosenblum noted.

“Once done, we would expect the president and senior administration officials in the national security community to make public statements and reach out to the victimized country to offer support and assistance,” he said.

In response to the attack, Trump continued his criticism of London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, on Monday. The president over the weekend had mischaracterized the mayor’s comments following Saturday’s attack, writing, “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is “no reason to be alarmed!”

Khan had said “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed.”

On Monday, the president again berated Khan, writing in a statement, “Pathetic excuse by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who had to think fast on his ‘no reason to be alarmed’ statement. MSM is working hard to sell it!”

Outside of the Oval Office, U.S. counterterrorism officials are focused on the latest attack and the broader terrorist threat, experts told The Cipher Brief.

Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said, “we should be looking to learn from the event, and immediately adjust our own intelligence priorities” and protective measures if necessary.

“Finally, it won’t just be the federal government. Key cities, most notably New York and the NYPD, will be closely engaged with the London Metropolitan Police to learn and apply lessons domestically,” he said.

As the investigation continues to unfold, cooperating with partners on counterterrorism and intelligence is “essential to shared security,” Rosenblum said.

“Tactical and operational cooperation continues regardless of temporary pique at the political level or uncertainty about the president’s veracity. U.S. intelligence cooperation exists in varying degrees of strategic trust,” he said.

View our expert commentary on this topic:

‘Lone Wolves’ Never Really Act Alone, by Todd Rosenblum, former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas’ Security

FBI, U.S. Police Scramble After London Terror Attacks, by John Perren, former Assistant Director of the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate

Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.

Leone Lakhani and Elaine Shannon contributed to this report.

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