Heroes in the shadows: They swooped in seconds to gun down terror maniac Sudesh Amman as he launched knife attack… but it was just another day in the nerve-shredding lives of the undercover officers who secretly patrol the streets
- The undercover men and women of SO15 rely on the shadows for their safety
- The aftermath of Sunday’s executive action saw these shadowers briefly emerge
- It is understood that a team of 25 SO15 officers had been watching the terrorist
They live in a shadow world where their jargon often understates the life-or-death ‘game’ they play to keep the rest of us safe.
A would-be mass-casualty attacker is referred to by these watchers as an SOI – or ‘subject of interest’. Last Sunday on Streatham High Road the SOI was Sudesh Amman.
Having stabbed two people and no doubt intending to murder many more, the Islamist fanatic was on the receiving end of what is known in anti-terror surveillance circles as ‘executive action’.
That similarly innocuous term describes what happens – from a sudden arrest to a fatal shot – when the watchers step out of the shadows. To them, the most important question is: ‘How long do we let this (operation) run?’
Camera-phone photographs and video footage captured some of the officers involved in the incident. Pictured: another officer arrives at the scene on a blue motorbike
On Sunday they had no choice. But while a political storm rages over how a dangerous, unrepentant terrorist like Amman was allowed out of jail last month, there is quiet satisfaction at Scotland Yard and MI5 headquarters at the speed – 60 seconds – with which their operatives neutralised his threat.
At the same time, there was disquiet at the camera-phone photographs and video footage that captured some of those officers involved in the incident, subsequently posted on social media.
The undercover men and women of SO15 – Scotland Yard’s Counter Terrorism Command – and the domestic security service MI5 rely on the shadows for their safety and future successes.
On at least one occasion in the past an armed jihadi has gone looking for a policeman to kill, not knowing that he was in fact the hunted. A specialist team of undercover officers was trailing him only a few dozen yards behind and about to pounce.
The aftermath of Sunday’s executive action saw these shadowers briefly emerge into plain sight. There were of course the firearms officers who brought Amman down. But they had back-up from one plain-clothes colleague mounted on a powerful motorcycle and others in unmarked cars and a van.
Armed police shot dead extremist Amman after he grabbed a knife from a shop and stabbed a man and a woman in a brutal high-street rampage in Streatham, South London
There also appeared to be at least one plain-clothes officer on foot who was not armed.
It is understood that a team of up to 25 SO15 officers had been watching the terrorist, albeit in shifts around the clock.
A similarly intense surveillance operation of the infamous hate preacher and jihadi recruiter Anjem Choudary was estimated to have cost the taxpayer some £2million in just one year.
MI5 sources have denied that any of its own officers were at the scene, though this has been questioned, given the agency’s known role in the case.
In the fight against domestic terrorism, SO15 and MI5 enjoy a symbiotic relationship.
Unlike the police, MI5 officers are not allowed to carry firearms or make arrests. ‘MI5 does the intelligence collection, the identification and investigation of suspects, the planting of listening devices, secret cameras, mobile observation posts, the recruitment of agents or sources, and so on,’ says one security source. ‘The police carry out the executive action.
‘They do the raids, the arrests, the forensics, the gathering of evidence. But their roles do overlap sometimes because the two services have their own sources. The police end up doing intelligence collection as well.’
When Amman stepped out of Belmarsh jail on January 23 he was immediately picked up by an MI5 surveillance operation.
Tom Marcus is a former MI5 surveillance operative who last year published a memoir of his career trailing people like Amman. It is not a glamorous task and involves irregular hours often far from home. It is demanding on relationships. And dangerous.
When Amman (pictured) stepped out of Belmarsh jail on January 23 he was immediately picked up by an MI5 surveillance operation
‘As the team waited for our target to emerge, we maintained our cover within the local area,’ he recalled.
‘Passers-by would never have known we were MI5: variously, we looked like painters, builders, local chavs, business types, pregnant women, old age pensioners – we matched the whole landscape of the community.
The job is never about jumping over bonnets wearing aviator sunglasses. It’s always about getting the maximum amount of intelligence without being seen in order to keep people alive.’ Within 48 hours of MI5 picking up Amman came the ‘trigger’ incident which changed the face and pace of the operation.
On January 25, Amman, who was living in a nearby bail hostel, was seen to enter the same hardware store on Streatham High Road from which he would, a week later, steal a kitchen knife and emerge to begin his bloody rampage. Why was Amman interested in such a shop, which sold knives, hammers and other potentially deadly weapons?
It is likely that MI5 immediately convened an ‘executive liaison committee’. This is the body that brings together the spooks and SO15 to discuss a surveillance operation’s ‘end game’ – the possibility of executive action.
Police officers inspect the Sudesh Amman, 19, lying face down on Streatham High Road at around 2pm on Sunday (left) and officers suddenly backing off (right)
It was decided that Amman was probably planning a terror attack and the surveillance teams should be supplemented, if not replaced, by armed undercover police officers. The call was correct. Executive action moved a step closer.
‘This week’s police operation was planned,’ said a source.
‘It was under control. They had armed surveillance on hand and it was all over in a minute. That is a success in the circumstances.
‘You have to appreciate that terror tactics have changed. We used to talk about the ‘distance to the bang’, which meant the time from the beginning of preparation to the attack itself. That could mean a few months. Now we are faced primarily with what are called ‘low-tech’ attacks.
‘You can hijack a vehicle and drive it into a crowd or take a knife from your kitchen drawer. These days, the distance to the bang can be a matter of days if not hours. It is more difficult to pre-empt.’
Amman’s actions forced the hand of his watchers. But previous operations have shown how vital it is to make the right call at the right time.
If a target is to be taken off the streets to protect the public for an appreciable period – rather than a year or 18 months for possessing terrorist literature – then they have to be caught committing or about to commit a serious offence.
The law dictates – for our own protection – that you cannot be jailed simply because you are believed to be dangerous. There has to be hard evidence. And that is where judgment and nerve come in to play in surveillance operations.
A controversial case in point is that of known former Taliban bomb-maker and would-be mass casualty terrorist Khalid Ali, who had planned a knife rampage at the gates of Downing Street.
In 2016, Ali (Saudi born but a UK citizen) had been out of Britain for five years, spending much of the time in Afghanistan fighting coalition forces. Fingerprints taken at Heathrow on his return were subsequently matched to those found by American security forces on bomb parts in Afghanistan.
Despite the ‘wealth of evidence’ it was decided not to arrest him.
Instead, MI5 began a surveillance operation and he was filmed by covert officers carrying out hostile reconnaissance on Downing Street, the Houses of Parliament, Scotland Yard and the MI6 building.
Ali purchased three knives from a store in west London, and so armed was allowed to board a busy Tube train to Victoria, where he walked to Whitehall, monitored all the way by the watchers.
It was only when he emerged from the Underground that MI5 scrambled armed police to intercept him.
CCTV was used to zoom in on Ali as he made his way from Victoria Embankment and helped guide armed officers towards him. During his journey, undetected by the cameras, Ali was able to move the knives from his rucksack into his jacket and trousers in preparedness for a deadly assault.
Amman lays dead on the pavement on Streatham High Road after being shot dead by undercover police officers
Footage from a body-worn camera carried by one of the armed officers showed police driving along Whitehall, shouting in alarm: ‘Is that him?’
When Ali was forced to the ground, he was asked: ‘Do you have anything on you that may hurt anyone?’
Grinning, Ali told him: ‘You’ll find out.’
This was brinkmanship in the extreme. Met Deputy Assistant Commissioner Dean Haydon said police had to follow ‘due legal process’ and had to defend the decision to allow the knifeman to get within yards of Downing Street amid concern that the public were put at risk.
He said police knew he was ‘likely’ to have armed himself that day, but he refused to say whether any officers were deployed to follow him on his journey into London to prevent him launching an attack.
‘Managing that risk was a challenge, but the arrest was at the most appropriate time.’
The watchers don’t always get it right.
Many of the fanatics who successfully commit terror attacks have been known to MI5 or police at some stage.
In a number of cases, surveillance has been downgraded, suspended or called off altogether with disastrous consequences.
Last November, the coroner in the inquests for the 2017 London Bridge attack suggested MI5 could be letting terrorists slip through the net because of a flawed assessment process that rated the capability of the ringleader as being too ‘weak’ for him to launch an attack.
Khuram Butt had been an MI5 subject of interest since 2015, but nothing was done to prevent him leading a knife-wielding gang on a murderous rampage, killing eight people and injuring 48 more before he was shot dead by police on June 3, 2017.
Officials suspended monitoring of Butt from February to April 2016 because of resourcing constraints.
When Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick is questioned by the London Assembly’s police committee today, she is likely be asked if she needs more undercover officers and equipment to meet the challenges.
Sunday demonstrated the limitations of the watchers.
For all their skills and courage there was only one way in which the events in Streatham could have been prevented: Amman remaining in custody.
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