A police car is parked outside a property in Birmingham that was raided after an attack in Westminster, Britain, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
Anti-terror police raided a flat on Hagley Road in Birmingham on Thursday © Reuters

To neighbours and police alike, few clues in the life of Khalid Masood pointed towards his future as a terrorist.

As in so many other recent attacks across Europe, investigators must now stitch together the two halves of the man’s life, devout but unprepossessing family man and violent zealot, to try and find answers to the questions of how and why he decided to kill on the streets of London in the name of his ideology.

Neighbours of the middle-aged Masood, he was 52, look to the everyday. He had a quiet family who kept to themselves, said one. Another recalled watching him regularly mow his lawn.

Raviyar Sedighi was in his shop, the Hagley Supermarket, on Wednesday evening when the events that made this down-at-heel corner of Birmingham, the UK’s second-largest city, the subject of intense scrutiny began to unfold.

“I see policemen with guns,” said Mr Sedighi. “They ask me to go to the back, inside the shop.”

When he eventually emerged, Mr Sedighi saw armed police bundling a man, his head covered, into a van. Following the attack, a series of arrests have been made as part of a scramble by police to piece together the story of Masood’s radicalisation. His Hagley Road address was a priority target, although he is believed to have recently moved to another.

“To know that somebody lives there that can act like that is terrifying,” said Aisha Hussain, a young woman wearing a Muslim hijab, from outside what was thought to be Masood’s flat.

Edward Rolands, wheeling his bike past the cordoned-off area in front of the first-floor flat that was the subject of Wednesday’s raid, said Birmingham was in general a “hotbed” for Islamist activity. But he went on: “Just not this area.”

While communities that are home to terrorists often express surprise, the feeling was particularly intense on Hagley Road. The businesses in the row of shops targeted in the raids are mostly owned by Iranians, adherents of Islam’s Shia sect, which is traditionally at odds with the militant Sunni Islam of Isis and other jihadi groups.

Masood’s turn to violence was equally surprising to the experts.

Speaking on Thursday morning, Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, described Masood as a figure known to the security service, MI5, but only on the periphery of their investigations.

Whitehall security officials said Masood has a file with MI5 as a “subject of interest” and has done so for several years.

The police said he had a number of aliases. There is no record of his birth in Kent, where the police said he was born, under the name Khalid Masood. On Friday morning the Metropolitan Police confirmed that he was born in Dartford as Adrian Russell. It was reported that he had lived in Rye, Crawley and Eastbourne in Sussex.

He cropped up as a potential target for surveillance as the result of involvement in a historical counter-extremism investigation.

It is still unclear, however, just how much attention was paid to him and whether clues may have been missed. Experts suggest he is likely to have appeared on the edges of one of the several foiled plots to have emerged from Birmingham in recent years.

“The attack seems to fit the pattern of what we have come to expect quite effectively,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. “You are looking at a figure who was part of a known network but was a peripheral, not a priority, subject — someone at the fringes. So someone who holds these ideas, circulates in the radical milieu . . . Prioritising how to intervene and deal with someone like that is still the big problem security agencies face.”

MI5 has more than 3,000 subjects of interest on its files. The majority of those are not the subject of current investigations, of which there are about 500. Of those, only the very highest priority can be assigned full surveillance.

In his attack on London, authorities say, Masood acted alone.

But his extremist beliefs were not held in isolation. He was known as an associate of radical individuals in Birmingham, said one official. The individuals arrested after Masood’s attack may not have had any direct knowledge of his intentions but they may be able to shed light on how he arrived at them.

The core of the matter will be determining how much contact Masood had, if any, with Isis or al-Qaeda. That in turn may shed light on other plots in train.

Although Isis claimed Masood’s attack as perpetrated by one of its “soldiers” on Thursday, it was a victory declared with significant ambiguity.

The jihadis have a tried and tested model of connecting with disparate, vulnerable and extremist individuals through online messaging services or social media platforms, and rapidly manipulating them towards taking violent action in their name. The timed nature of Wednesday’s attack, one year on from the deadly Isis bombings in Brussels, as well as his profile certainly fits the jihadis’ pattern.

Masood may prove to be their latest success.

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