Deaths of Reading terror attack victims 'probably avoidable', inquest finds

The deaths of the Reading terror attack victims were "probably avoidable" and contributed to by the "failings of multiple agencies", an inquest has found.

Friends James Furlong, 36, Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, 39, and David Wails, 49, were stabbed to death by Khairi Saadallah, now 29, in Forbury Gardens on 20 June 2020.

Three other people were also injured before Saadallah, who shouted "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest), threw away the eight-inch knife and ran off, pursued by an off-duty police officer.

Saadallah was handed a whole-life sentence at the Old Bailey in January 2021 after pleading guilty to the three murders and three attempted murders.

On Friday, Judge Coroner Sir Adrian Fulford delivered his findings on the killings of history teacher Mr Furlong, pharmaceuticals manager Mr Ritchie-Bennett, and scientist Mr Wails.

Mr Fulford said the deaths "probably would have been avoidable" if the mental health service had given "greater priority to stabilising [Saadallah] and securing access to long-term psychological therapy".

He added that if his "extremist risk had been better analysed", Saadallah would probably then have been recalled to custody the day before the attacks, meaning they would never have happened.

The coroner said the deaths of the three men were "contributed to by the failings of multiple agencies".

Read more: The missed opportunities to stop Reading attacker

Saadallah, who came to the country as a teenager from Libya, where he was trained to fight as a child soldier for a group now banned as a terrorist organisation in the UK, had a long history of offending and was released from prison on licence just 15 days before the attack.

The inquest heard six weeks of evidence looking at his management while he was in jail and on probation, his mental health and the assessment and response to his risk of terrorism.

The Old Bailey heard the Home Office dealt with Saadallah with "woeful inadequacy", while he was referred to the government's Prevent de-radicalisation programme four times.

MI5 "triaged" him on four separate occasions, once opening a "lead investigation", but the security service said they found no evidence he planned to leave the country or commit an attack.

Saadallah had a string of previous convictions for offences including violence and possession of a knife, and spent repeated spells in jail between 2015 and 2020.

Prison intelligence reports showed a pattern of fighting, threats to staff, self-harming and suspected drug use, along with references to extremism.

Saadallah had repeatedly indicated he had a "terrorist mindset", along with a capacity to kill and "serious psychiatric problems," the coroner said.

He had declared that he was a member of ISIS and wanted to kill himself and "take people with him" and had graphically described chewing his victims and drinking their blood.

A counsellor said she "harassed" mental health services to examine him in the year before the killings, while one probation officer broke down in court as she recalled unknowingly "managing an unconvicted murderer".

The inquest also heard Thames Valley Police officers did not find a knife at Saadallah's home during a "welfare check" the day before the attack after they were not told he was threatening to harm himself and others.

But the judge coroner said he accepts that based on the information available to the officers before the visit, they had "no reasonable ground" to arrest Saadallah.

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'Catastrophically failed'

Mr Furlong's father Gary said the victims' families had listened with "shock and utter disappointment" to the evidence, which had led them to "fundamentally question" whether their faith in authorities to protect their loved ones was misplaced.

"Our boys did not stand a chance," he said.

Dr Wails's brother Andrew said UK state agencies had "catastrophically failed" in their duty to protect the public from Saadallah and that the attack "destroyed our lives".

Calling Saadallah a "cowardly terrorist", Andrew Wails said: "[He] had been a member of a proscribed terrorist group and murdered people, he confessed to throwing grenades at people in public places in Libya, yet he was let into the UK and allowed to remain here."

Parallels to London Bridge stabbings

Nick Harborne, chief of Reading Refugee Support Group, also said the stabbings "could have been avoided" having warned various bodies about Saadallah months before the attack.

When the news of the stabbings broke, Mr Harborne "instantly knew it was Saadallah".

He said he had tried to communicate with Prevent, community mental health services, and the Probation Service, to notify them of Saadallah's "potential for violence".

Mr Harborne likened Saadallah's trajectory to the terrorist Usman Khan who committed the 2019 London Bridge stabbings, and he referred to the attack in his communications with the various agencies.

"There is stuff we could all have done better... The tragedy didn't have to happen," he said.

Assistant Chief Constable Tim Metcalfe of Counter Terrorism Policing South said there was "still work to do" to address the issues surrounding the case.

He added: "In this moment, it is also important to reflect on the terrorist threat that we in UK policing and our partners face. It is significant and continually evolving.

"Many of the cases we are working on now involve people with complex mental health and social needs. We also are seeing more individuals with mixed or unclear ideology, who can be more difficult to assess and manage."