A 2016 British documentary about Islamist extremism in the UK is roaring back into the news for a surprising and profoundly depressing reason: Two militants featured in the film, including one responsible for Saturday’s lethal assault in central London, have now gone on to carry out terror attacks in the name of Islamic extremism.
Khuram Shazad Butt, now known to be “a heavyweight figure” in the UK-based extremist group al-Muhajiroun, was the leader of the three terrorists who rammed into pedestrians on London Bridge with a van on Saturday. He appears briefly in a Channel 4 documentary titled — believe it or not — The Jihadis Next Door.
This film is chilling even without knowing that you’re watching two people who are now known terrorists. Figures in the film who are identified as bus drivers, waiters, and business owners exchange blows with British police and give ominous warnings to the public that “things have to change.”
Butt appears at 14:49 in the documentary. He’s shown following an extremist Muslim preacher known as Abu Haleema into Regent’s Park and asking out loud if “anyone’s got a smartphone” so the group can use the compass to determine the direction for prayer.
Later, Butt helps set up a black flag (a common symbol for Islamic militancy and now notoriously co-opted by the Islamic State) on top of a speaker before lining up in a row with six other men to participate in a prayer ritual led by Haleema, who chants, “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for “God is the greatest”) out loud.
Let’s just take a moment to digest this: Butt was not only living in the UK but was literally in the public eye, openly advocating extremist views. More than 1.2 million people watched this documentary when it was released, which raises a disturbing question: How did the British police miss this?
This question is even more baffling considering this isn’t even the first time that people from The Jihadis Next Door have gone on to commit acts of terror.
Abu Rumaysah, one of the film’s central characters, was named by an official source to the BBC as an ISIS executioner in January 2016. In an ISIS propaganda video released last year, a masked man holding a gun mocks former British Prime Minister David Cameron before shooting five supposed “British spies” in the back of the head. According to Rumaysah’s sister, the audio from the clip resembles him, reported the BBC.
So to recap: Two would-be terrorists appear in a 2016 British documentary openly declaring their support for Islamic extremism. One of them (Rumaysah) was arrested for spreading terrorism and then released on bail. He wasn’t supposed to have his passport, but managed to flee to Syria anyway, becoming an executioner for ISIS and leaving the British police to pick up the pieces.
And after all this, it doesn’t seem that the British police paid any more attention to the documentary or the people in it. Haleema, the preacher from the film, was still active on his YouTube channel as of 11 months ago. And now Butt, as we know, has gone on to commit an unthinkable act of terror, killing 8 people and injuring over 40.
It’s terrifying to think about who else might have slipped under the radar of the British police, but now, as before, the people leading the UK’s anti-terrorism efforts don’t seem willing to take accountability for this.
After Rumaysah was reported as an ISIS executioner, people wondered how he was even able to leave the UK when he was still on bail, let alone join ISIS in Syria.
David Anderson QC, a lawyer appointed by the government to provide independent reviews of the UK’s anti-terrorism law to Parliament, said to the BBC in 2016, "There are thousands of people who are subjects of interest. I don't know how high up the list this person was — I suspect not very near the top.”
On Monday, Mark Rowley, the UK’s top counterterrorism officer, said almost exactly the same thing about Butt.
Even though MI5 had been aware of the Pakistan-born terrorist, opened an investigation into him in 2015, and received multiple calls from the public about his extremism, it decided to move Butt into the “lower echelons” of counterterrorism investigations, Rowley said. He added, “I have seen nothing yet that a poor decision was made.”
The UK police seemed to have missed clear red flags on both Butt and Rumaysah, but this doesn’t mean there is a simple answer for what lies ahead. Small-scale and relatively isolated terrorist attacks like the one on Saturday are very hard to stop. Their perpetrators are more volatile and tend to pull together attack plots quickly, leaving the police with less time to uncover them.
This is only made more difficult by funding cuts. In March, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary, an independent watchdog group for the UK police, said funding cuts have left the police in a “potentially perilous state.” This came up again on Monday when Prime Minister Theresa May dodged questions on whether the police are receiving the resources they need.
Given these new constraints and challenges, it’s worth noting that the British police have done a relatively good job of weeding out terrorists: Police have reportedly disrupted five domestic terrorist plots since March. But this latest attack shows how much more the police still have to do to confront the threat. Watching this documentary — and finding out how they let it slip past them — might be a good place to start.