The man who was arrested in Westminster and found to be carrying knives has said that he was approached by MI5 as recently as last year, the Guardian has learned.
Sources in the British Muslim community said Khalid Mohamed Omar Ali, 27, described the security services attempting to contact him in 2016. The suspect, who grew up in north London, is also understood to have travelled internationally for the two years before that and to have been seeking employment so that he could move out of his family home last Christmas. While in his late teens, he also told of attending events of a group deemed by British authorities to be extremist, but then drifted away.
If Ali’s claim is correct, it would mean he was known to Britain’s domestic security service last year, which is earlier than previously thought.
On Sunday Ali remained in police custody in Southwark police station, south London, facing questions about whether he intended to carry out a terrorist attack last Thursday before he was wrestled to the ground and arrested by armed officers yards from the Houses of Parliament and Downing Street.
Ali’s associations may have aroused the attention of the security services. A number of British Muslims have similar histories, but have no involvement in violence or related activities.
The same sources say that Ali was an Ethiopian national who had a strained relationship with his family, who live in Enfield, north London. On Sunday the family home was empty and had been subjected to searches by counter-terrorism investigators. Ali grew up in north London and is understood is have gone to school in Tottenham.
By 2010, aged 21, Ali took part in an avowedly non-political humanitarian relief mission to Gaza, called Road 2 Hope. Muslim community sources say that Ali had gone travelling for two to three years, including to Pakistan and India, and on his return to the UK in 2016 was contacted by the security services.
Ali described the MI5 contacts as comprising of phones calls and a visit in person. He is described by one person he discussed the matter with as “not particularly concerned” by the approaches. While he did not formally complain about them, he did describe them as “harassment”. Ali’s demeanour late last year is described as “calm, collected” and “thoughtful”. He was not described as agitated or as giving any indication of being on a path towards violence.
Ali’s idea of his religion is understood to have been a point of tension with his family.
It is understood that his arrest followed a tip-off to police from a member of the Muslim community concerned about Ali’s behaviour. Counter-terrorism investigators tracked him as he travelled through London and armed officers tackled him in an area full of high-profile buildings and tourists.
He is alleged to have been carrying two knives in a bag that spilled out into the middle of the road as he was grabbed by police and put on the ground.
Police said he had been detained “on suspicion of possession of an offensive weapon and on suspicion of the commission, preparation and instigation of acts of terrorism. Knives have been recovered from him.”
His arrest at the junction of Parliament Street and Parliament Square took place just yards from where in March Khalid Masood drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing three, and then used a knife to stab a police officer to death. Masood was then killed by a single shot fired by a police marksman.