A Taliban bomb-maker who was arrested metres from the gates of parliament armed with knives has been convicted of plotting to kill police and MPs.
Khalid Ali, 28, disappeared in 2011 from his family home in north London and dropped out of sight for nearly six years while he built hundreds of bombs at an al-Qaida-linked Taliban training camp in Afghanistan.
Upon his return to Britain in November 2016 he was stopped at Heathrow and his fingerprints were matched to records held by the FBI in the US, who had found the same prints on bomb components seized in Afghanistan. The match triggered a UK investigation into Ali involving covert surveillance.
Ali, a plumber, was ultimately stopped in a dramatic arrest that was caught on video in April last year near the Palace of Westminster. He was carrying three knives. Further investigation revealed he had staked out potential targets including New Scotland Yard, the MI6 headquarters and parliament.
On Tuesday he was convicted by a jury at the Old Bailey of two counts of possessing an explosive substance in relation to his activities in Afghanistan and one count of preparing terrorist acts in relation to his plans in Westminster.
The deputy assistant commissioner Dean Haydon, Scotland Yard’s senior national coordinator for counter-terrorism policing, said “Ali was an incredibly dangerous individual who had returned from a training camp in Afghanistan with a determination to kill police officers, the military or parliamentarians here in the UK.”
Ali, a naturalised British citizen, told his parents he was going to Birmingham on a plumbing job before he disappeared in 2011. “He left the UK and ended up in Afghanistan, in a Taliban training camp affiliated to al-Qaida, where for several years he helped terrorists make hundreds of bombs capable of mass murder,” Haydon said.
In October 2016 he resurfaced at the British consulate in Turkey, where he requested temporary travel documents to return to the UK. When he came through Heathrow in November 2016 he was stopped and his fingerprints were taken. They were shared with US authorities who matched them to bomb components found on two caches of explosives recovered in 2012 in Afghanistan.
He told officers at time he was part of a charity convoy to Palestine in 2010, and claimed to have gone to Pakistan after he was put pressed into marrying a “gold-digger”. He also claimed MI5 had tried to recruit him as a “James Bond”-type spy before he left the UK.
With an investigation under way, Ali was seen in April last year buying knives in Edmonton, London, and dumping the packaging in a bin.
The same night the police received a call from his mother raising concerns about his aggressive behaviour after she found four knives in his bedroom. After speaking to officers, Ali left the family home and the knives behind.
But on 28 April he rearmed himself at a shop, Wilko, in Ealing, where he bought three knives – an 8in chef’s knife and two 3.4in paring blades – and other items such as a potato masher. He went to a gym in Ealing where he put the knives in a rucksack and discarded the other items, before heading to central London on the underground.
When firearms officers arrested him metres from parliament he had a knife in each of his jacket’s pockets and the other knife in the waistband of his trousers.
On his way to parliament he had thrown a phone into the Thames on Victoria embankment, which was recovered by officers. Ali’s internet history and phone data revealed he had conducted detailed Google Street View searches of the MI6 building, and he also had numerous images of police officers.
Police also trawled through CCTV footage that showed Ali’s whereabouts before his arrest. This included footage of him carrying out “hostile reconnaissance” in relation to potential targets including the MI6 building, New Scotland Yard, the Houses of Parliament, Downing Street and Westminster Bridge.
Asked how it was possible for Ali to get so far before he was stopped, Haydon said: “There was surveillance but we won’t go into any further details of that surveillance. Police and security services were managing any potential risk that he posed. He was arrested at the most appropriate time. We are convinced he was going to target the police, military, our security services or parliamentarians.”
Asked if there was any evidence of Ali continuing to access extremist material after he returned to UK, or was in contact with extremists in the UK or overseas, Haydon answered: “His acts were years in the planning … I’d describe him as a lone actor. We have no evidence to indicate he is part of a wider network and associated with others here in the UK. Most of his activities and training were in Afghanistan. He’d come back here with murderous intentions.”
The government’s anti-radicalisation Channel programme, part of its Prevent strategy, was not considered appropriate for Ali, as it deals with people who are yet to commit – or not yet suspected of committing – a criminal offence.
Haydon said: “When he was arrested and interviewed, he boasted to officers initially that he had built about 300 different bombs. If you go to the region of Afghanistan and into the borders of Pakistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida are most active, I’m in no doubt those bombs were used against coalition forces and to kill, maim and injure coalition forces. He posed a significant risk but that was a risk we were managing [by] various covert means.”
In police interview, Ali said he wanted to deliver a “message” to British authorities, but claimed the knives were for protection. When asked if he had returned for jihad, he replied: “Jihad is what we do. We are mujahideen.”
He admitted involvement in IEDs in Afghanistan, even bragging he detonated more than 300 devices, although he later backtracked.
Giving evidence, Ali went on to claim he had been held captive by the Taliban and forced to make bombs.