MI5 will review its handling of the London Bridge terror attack to look at whether lessons can be learned, Theresa May has said, after it emerged that at least two of the attackers were known to the British security services.
The prime minister said she understood concerns about MI5’s failure to prevent the atrocity but did not go so far as Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, who said people, would be wondering what had happened and the intelligence agencies had questions to answer.
May said she expected police and security services to launch a review after three terrorists slipped through the net to launch the devastating attack on Saturday night. She also defended the performance of the intelligence agencies in foiling attacks at a time when the “tempo is increasing” in a way not seen before.
One of the attackers, Khuram Butt, 27, had been reported to the anti-terror hotline in 2015, while another, Youssef Zaghba, was stopped in Italy in 2016 on suspicion of trying to travel to Syria and the British authorities were informed.
Asked about Johnson’s comments, May told Sky News: “I absolutely recognise people’s concerns. MI5 and the police have already said they would be reviewing how they dealt with Manchester and I would expect them to do exactly the same in relation to London Bridge.
“What government needs to do, and what the government that comes in after Thursday’s election needs to be willing to do, is to give more powers to the police and security service when they need them, needs to deal with this issue of terrorism and extremism online and also needs to be able to call out extremism here in the United Kingdom.”
Speaking shortly afterwards at a general election campaign event with Conservative activists in Labour-held Stoke South, she said the government now “needs to ensure that MI5 and the police are able to get on with that investigation” into their own processes.
“We need to look at how the terror threat is evolving, the way that terrorism is breeding terrorism and the increased tempo of attacks. We have had three horrific attacks and we have foiled five others. The tempo is there in a way we haven’t seen before.
“We will look at how the processes were followed, what they did. They will want to be looking at that because they will want to learn lessons for the future, if there are those lessons to be learned.”
She added: “The police and security service have done a good job in foiling a number of plots just five in the last three months, and a significant number in the last few years as well.”
May declined to say whether the third attacker was monitored or subject to an exclusion order when he returned to the UK after being stopped in Italy, and declined an opportunity to apologise for any failures by the intelligence agencies.
Asked about the Channel 4 programme The Jihadis Next Door, which featured Bhutt, May said she had not seen it but was “aware of it but it comes back to the point I made earlier which is that we need to make sure we are properly calling out extremism in this country”.
In a speech on Sunday on the steps of Downing Street, the prime minister set out a plan for combating terror and warned that difficult and embarrassing conversations would need to be held to deal with the growing threat.
Pressed on whether she would hold tough conversations with Gulf allies, such as Saudi Arabia, over the funding of terror, she replied: “Tough conversations are required over this whole issue of financing of the terrorists and the financing of extremism.”
She added: “We need to have tough conversations with whoever we need to have those conversations with.”
The issue of security has dominated the last weeks of the election campaign after the two attacks by Islamic extremist terrorists at a Manchester concert and London Bridge overshadowed the campaign.
May has tried to move the conversation on to Brexit and her leadership but has come under repeated pressure over the last few days about having overseen cuts to police and armed officers during her time as home secretary.
During a tour of marginal seats, including four Labour-held targets, May insisted she was “enjoying the campaign” despite the narrowing of her lead in the polls against Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
In a speech to Tory activists in Stoke-on-Trent, she spoke of wanting to “reignite the British spirit” as she leads the country into Brexit negotiations if she is re-elected.