One of the thousands of under-the-radar terrorists radicalised online

The baby-faced fanatic inspired by Jihadi John to unleash terror at a Justin Bieber concert in Cardiff… Just one of the thousands of under-the-radar lone wolf terrorists radicalised online that a chilling new book says MI5 is struggling to track

Lloyd Gunton was not a typical Islamist terrorist. The 17-year-old farmer’s son lived in the Welsh valleys with his Christian parents. 

His sole knowledge of fighting jihad – a holy war – had been gleaned from his computer.

Yet the freckle-faced teenager had a butcher’s knife and a heavy claw hammer in his school rucksack, alongside a handwritten martyrdom letter proclaiming: ‘I am a soldier of the Islamic State.’

Inspired by Isis terrorists, his motivation for violence was to wreak revenge for British air-strikes on the Middle East.

From the confines of his bedroom, Gunton had planned to launch a deadly attack on a Justin Bieber concert in Cardiff on a balmy June evening six years ago. But his plot was foiled in the nick of time.

The freckle-faced teenager Lloyd Gunton had a butcher’s knife and a heavy claw hammer in his school rucksack

Lloyd Gunton was convicted of preparing for terrorist acts after a nine-day trial at Birmingham Crown Court

Just hours before 40,000 Bieber fans arrived at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium, armed police – acting on information from the security services – burst into Gunton’s farmhouse near Llantrisant, South Wales, and arrested the would-be killer.

Gunton came to the attention of security services after boasting of his plan on Instagram. 

Using the name ‘Alqaeds’, he wrote: ‘Cardiff, are you ready for our terror… May Allah bring terrorism to Cardiff.’

Posts also included a picture of the Welsh capital’s castle, an image of a Jeep, a knife, a bomb and a fluttering Isis flag.

He had even posted instructions on launching vehicle attacks, copied from Isis’s translated propaganda magazine.

The security services had already been working to counter the threat from around 900 British jihadis who had joined Isis in Syria and Iraq. 

But in Gunton, who had not converted to Islam, they had found a different sort of threat: a home-grown terrorist with no links to known extremists.

Evidence presented at his trial suggested he had radicalised himself by reading internet posts about Jihadi John, who featured in beheading videos by Islamic State, and the two Muslim converts who murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby. 

The conversion from innocent schoolboy to terrorist took little over a year.

Gunton is far from the only one. Some 43,000 people have been logged by MI5 for posing a potential threat to the UK, of whom 3,000 are deemed ‘subjects of interest’.

Thanks to an estimated 800 priority investigations by intelligence services, around 40 terror attacks on British soil have been foiled in the past six years.

These would-be terrorists do not get the chance, as they see it, to die in a blaze of glory. Instead, like Gunton, they are arrested, their homes searched, their phones and laptops seized, and their friends and families interviewed. 

When Gunton was sentenced this month, he was given a life sentence with a minimum term of 11 years.

These thwarted plots reveal far more of the true picture of terrorism in the UK than the deadly attacks by terrorists whose secrets often die with them.

A policeman pointing a gun at Khalid Masood on the floor as emergency services attend the scene outside the Palace of Westminster, London, in March 2017

The first sign of this new threat came in March 2017, when a car was repeatedly driven into the crowds of pedestrians on the pavement on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four people and injuring many more.

The driver, Khalid Masood, then smashed the vehicle into the railings around the Houses of Parliament before jumping out and stabbing an unarmed police officer to death. 

Within minutes, Masood was shot dead by a Government Minister’s bodyguard.

Khalid Masood who was shot dead by police after using a rented Hyundai 4×4 to mow down and kill and seriously injure innocent people on Wednesday in a terror attack on Westminster Bridge

Security services had long feared a bloody ‘spectacular’ by militants who fought for Isis in Syria and Iraq before returning to the UK. 

Masood’s attack showed there was a seething pool of disaffected extremists already here.

The Westminster attack was the first of a chain of 15 terrorist atrocities in the UK in the next five years, which have killed 42 and injured hundreds more – across London and Manchester and spreading out into smaller towns such as Reading and Leigh-on-Sea.

Masood, who had been born with the name Adrian Elms in Kent, had previously attracted MI5’s interest but was deemed low-risk and his case had been closed.

So had the file on Salman Abedi, who murdered 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May 2017.

Khuram Butt, the ringleader of the 2017 terror attack on London Bridge that killed eight people, had been under live investigation – but his plot was still missed.

Intelligence services had failed to move with the times – and were heavily criticised in the report into the Manchester Arena bombing, published earlier this month. Making the job of the security services harder was that the profile of a typical plotter had changed.

The first unmasked pictures of Jihadi John wearing combat gear and wielding an AK-47 in the Middle East were published a week after his death was confirmed 

Many were lone actors who ‘self-radicalised’ online and kept their plans to themselves – a phenomenon amplified by the forced isolation during the Covid pandemic (Jihadi John)

No longer were they part of terrorist networks. Instead, many were lone actors who ‘self-radicalised’ online and kept their plans to themselves – a phenomenon amplified by the forced isolation during the Covid pandemic. 

The intelligence services also failed to predict that terrorists were getting younger. Lloyd Gunton was one of 27 under-18s arrested for terror offences in 2017, of whom 13 were charged and ten convicted.

In the year to June 2022 the number of under-18s arrested in Britain for terror offences soared to 33 – meaning one in six people held for that reason was a child.

Haroon Syed, from Hounslow, was 16 when he was reported to the Prevent anti-radicalisation programme in 2014. Teachers had noticed a change in his behaviour when his brother was jailed for plotting a Remembrance Day terror attack.

Undercover officers from MI5 secretly engaged with Syed online and teased out his plan to obtain a machine gun and bomb to attack an Elton John concert in London’s Hyde Park. He was 19 when convicted in court.

In another shifting trend, white people have made up the largest single ethnic group arrested for terror offences for four consecutive years. In the year to last June, three-quarters of suspects considered themselves to be British nationals, compared to a third in the year following the 9/11 attacks.

By the beginning of this decade, when MI5 took over prime responsibility for tackling extreme Right-wing terrorism from the police, the far Right had become the fastest-growing threat in the UK. 

Some claimed to act out of revenge at jihadist attacks, but there was also an increase in support for white nationalist groups.

This led to the emergence of the neo-Nazi terrorist organisation National Action, whose members hailed the killer of Labour MP Jo Cox in 2016 as a ‘hero’.

The Government responded that December by banning National Action – the first far-Right group sanctioned as a terrorist organisation. 

Membership was made a criminal offence as Ministers pledged to combat its ‘racist, antisemitic and homophobic’ propaganda.

Jack Renshaw joined National Action after becoming a neo-Nazi at 14, obsessed with conspiracy theories about a supposed Jewish plot to eradicate white people. 

Jack Renshaw joined National Action after becoming a neo-Nazi at 14 and was jailed for a plot to kill a Labour MP 

National Action was declared a proscribed group by then-Home Secretary Amber Rudd on 16 December 2016 following the group’s support of the murder of Jo Cox, the MP for Batley (a knife confiscated from Christopher Lythgoe, a National Action ringleader)

Thanks to a National Action member who had turned informant for anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, Renshaw was arrested before he could act to kill Rosie Cooper (pictured)

In 2017, in his early 20s, Renshaw attended a meeting with six other National Action members at a Wetherspoon’s pub in Warrington, Cheshire. He announced he was going to murder his local Labour MP, Rosie Cooper, with a machete.

Renshaw planned to wear a fake suicide vest to ensure police would shoot him dead, in the same way Isis-inspired terrorists had during an attack in London’s Borough Market a few weeks earlier.

Some suggested alternative targets, such as a synagogue, but Renshaw’s preparations were already advanced. He had researched Ms Cooper and knew her constituency surgeries were not guarded.

Despite being the subject of a police investigation over evidence that suggested he had been grooming under-age boys for sex, Renshaw was not considered a terror threat. Neither was he on MI5’s radar or under surveillance.

Thanks to a National Action member who had turned informant for anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate, Renshaw was arrested before he could act, and jailed for 20 years.

But his plot exposed a hole in Britain’s counter-terrorism machinery. The extreme Right wing now makes up a fifth of counter-terror policing’s workload and a quarter of MI5’s terrorism caseload.

Extremists’ activities in prison was another intelligence blind spot.

Naweed Ali and Khobaib Hussain had been jailed in 2011 for attempting to travel to an Al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan. Their ally, Mohibur Rahman, had been imprisoned in 2012 for possessing copies of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine.

The trio, calling themselves the Three Musketeers, were jailed in London’s high-security Belmarsh Prison but plotted a fresh terror attack on their release. They were foiled by MI5 in the nick of time, before a wave of successful attacks by other freed inmates.

An official report published at the time of the Three Musketeers’ arrest in August 2016 had warned that prisoners were openly voicing support for Isis and threatening prison staff. Charismatic inmates were acting as self-styled ’emirs’, exerting a controlling influence and forcing conversions to Islam.

As of last June, there were 238 terrorist prisoners in British jails. Of these, 66 per cent were categorised as Islamist extremists, 27 per cent as extreme Right-wing, with seven per cent as holding other ideologies.

The figures do not account for those such as Sahayb Abu, who was jailed for burglary in 2018, but who was released two years later more radicalised than when he went in. 

He then told his brother: ‘I’m changing in many ways. I want to worship Allah and be pure. I’m done with everything, I care about the bigger picture… I don’t want to go back to no clown bulls***.’

Sahayb Abu is one of at least 20 people with previous criminal convictions who have planned or carried out a terror attack in the UK in recent years

Within days of Abu’s release, MI5 and counter-terror police discovered that he had begun to plan an Isis-inspired terror attack. He had already ordered an 18in ‘warrior sword’ and a combat vest.

Abu is one of at least 20 people with previous criminal convictions who have planned or carried out a terror attack in the UK in recent years, including those who struck in London Bridge and Westminster.

After his arrest, police revealed he had an ‘extraordinary’ number of family members involved in Islamist extremism, including two who had died for Isis in Syria.

Counter-terror police and MI5 have had to change their tactics in light of the 2017 attacks and were forced to adapt again during the Covid pandemic, when there was little conventional surveillance and people were spending more and more time online.

There was also little chance of mental health services, schools, probation workers or other agencies noticing these individuals were becoming a threat.

The pandemic offered fewer opportunities to attack and so security services feared the threat was being ‘stored up’. This was proved correct in October 2021, when an Isis supporter stabbed Tory MP Sir David Amess to death at his constituency surgery in Essex.

Ali Harbi Ali was found guilty of the murder of Sir David Ames. He said his attack had been delayed by coronavirus 

In October 2021, when an Isis supporter stabbed Tory MP Sir David Amess to death at his constituency surgery in Essex

Ali Harbi Ali planned the attack for more than two years, but told police when arrested that his action was delayed because of ‘corona y’know… that was a write-off year’.

Sir Mark Rowley, head of UK counter-terrorism policing between 2014 and 2018, pointed out that none of the seven fatal terror attacks in England since 2017 has been launched by ‘priority one’ subjects of interest – those regarded as having the highest level of risk.

This shows, he said, that the top end of the detection system is working, but that the successful attacks are coming from different groups.

Every month, MI5 receives hundreds of new leads from sources that include informants, undercover agents, calls to the UK’s anti-terrorist hotline and even emails directly to the security services.

Sir Mark said: ‘How do you spot something coming at you? You want multiple different radars.

‘You’ve got all the informants that police and MI5 run: intelligence coming from existing operations, you’ve got international intelligence from GCHQ and MI6 and partners that tell you ‘so and so in Raqqa is directing someone in Birmingham’, and then you’ve got the nosy neighbour who says something weird is going on.

‘Putting GCHQ and neighbours on the same list looks odd. But the more different radar systems you have, the better chance that fewer will slip through the cracks.’

Plotters: The UK Terrorists Who Failed, by Lizzie Dearden, is published by Hurst on March 23 at £25.

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