Paris attacks mastermind visited jihadists in the UK last year
Shadow home secretary heaps pressure on Theresa May after revelation that Abdelhamid Abaaoud was allowed to meet other jihadis and photograph landmarks
The Home Office is facing calls to launch an urgent review of security at ferry terminals after it emerged the Islamic State commander who planned the terror atrocities in Paris travelled undetected through Dover earlier last year.
Abdelhamid Abaaoud was a wanted terrorist at the time of his visit, in which he was able to visit fellow jihadis under the noses of Britain’s security services and police. While in the UK, Abaaoud also took pictures of British landmarks on his phone.
The shadow home secretary, Andy Burnham, has urged Theresa May to hold an urgent review of security at UK ferry terminals. “This adds to the growing questions about about border security at our seaports,” he said.
The revelation adds to the pressure on May, the home secretary, who is already facing demands to explain how a terror suspect, Abu Rumaysah – who is thought to be the masked figure who appeared in an Isis propaganda video earlier this month – managed to flee Britain after being arrested and bailed by police.
Burnham continued: “Not only did we discover last week that a UK terror suspect on bail waltzed out at the border, we now learn a terror suspect from the continent freely walked in through the same route.
“It would appear extremists perceive the ferry border to be a weak link. The home secretary must conduct an urgent review of border security at ferry terminals and provide urgent reassurance that passports are being properly checked on exit and arrival in the UK.”
May “cannot continue to ignore the growing number of security breaches on her watch,” Burnham added.
Counter-terrorism officials are still assessing whether the purpose of Abaaoud’s trip to the UK was to plan an atrocity in Britain. Abaaoud entered the UK through a Kent ferry port, believed to be Dover, according to security sources. Ferry ports are seen as more vulnerable and less secure than airports.
Abaaoud’s visit raises questions for the government, which has made repeated promises that border security has been strengthened.
The Home Office declined to comment on the apparent security breach at the UK border, citing national security as the reason for its silence.
Keith Vaz, the Labour MP who chairs the influential home affairs committee, told the Guardian the government had vital questions to answer: “It is remarkable that this terrorist entered and exited the country. He must have been on a watch list. Serious questions need to be answered so that we can prevent a repetition of what actually happened.”
“Both the home secretary and the head of the Border Force were asked if any of those involved in the Paris attacks had recently been to the UK and they declined to answer. The entry and exit of terrorists in a matter of great concern. There should be full cooperation between EU partners and 24/7 monitoring of any contacts they makes. It would be helpful to have a full explanation”.
Abaaoud, a 27-year-old Belgian, was killed in a shootout with French security forces days after he led the Paris attacks in November; digital material recovered from his possessions revealed the British trip. He was the head of an Isis unit set up to send European jihadis back to their home countries to carry out terrorist attacks.
On Abaaoud’s phone were photographs of his UK visit, including landmarks, which some in the European intelligence community have interpreted as being taken for the purpose of planning a terrorist attack. Others are less convinced. The pictures were taken while Abaaoud and the phone were physically in the UK.
Abaaoud’s history may provide context or clues to the purpose of his UK trip. By the time of the visit he was strongly believed by western counter-terrorism officials to be a senior Isis figure involved in assisting attacks against European targets.
Abaaoud is thought to have met committed jihadis in Birmingham and London – some known to him already, though it is not certain if any were with him in Isis-controlled areas of Syria.
These UK-based suspects are under investigation by MI5 and police counter-terrorism units. They are suspected of having both the intention and capability of planning or assisting terrorist activity in the UK.
But despite Abaaoud’s seniority in Isis, security officials did not know of his UK visit until his body was recovered and possessions examined by French investigators, months after he had been in Britain.
It is understood that the pictures of British “landmarks” lack certain features associated with attack planning, such as a focus on security features, and seem more similar to photos a tourist may take. But some officials are more sceptical.
Abaaoud had boasted in Isis propaganda of his ability to travel unnoticed into and through Europe. Despite being wanted by intelligence agencies he was thought to be using false documents to travel in and out of Europe. One theory is that he used a false passport; another that he used the European passport of another Isis recruit.
Abaaoud’s mutilated body was found in the rubble of his hideout, an apartment in rue du Corbillon, St-Denis, northern Paris, after a shootout with police five days after the 13 November attacks.
Abaaoud, who was born in Morocco, was linked with several terrorist plots in Europe and was thought to have been in Syria with Isis since late 2014. He was named in European and international arrest warrants but travelled through Europe apparently without being detained.
In July this year, Abaaoud was sentenced in absentia by a Belgian court to 20 years in prison for his leading role as a recruiter of European jihadis for Isis.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We can neither confirm or deny information related to issues of national security.” The Metropolictan police declined to comment.
West Midlands police said the reports were speculative but its assistant chief constable and head of counter-terrorism, Marcus Beale, has previously said the force – which covers Birmingham – is “working hand-in-hand with counter-terrorism colleagues in London, the national CT [counter-terrorism] network and security services to provide support to the French and Belgian investigations, and of course to address any associated terrorism threat to the UK.”
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