Reading charity made 'repeated warnings' about Libyan national Khairi Saadallah before terror attack

  • Sangeeta Bhabra spoke to Nick Harborne, CEO, of the Reading Refugee Support Group

Staff at an organisation which helps refugees and asylum seekers in Berkshire to rebuild their lives says they made repeated warnings that the man responsible for a terror attack in Reading could commit a violent crime.

On Friday 26 April, an inquest into the deaths of James Furlong, Joe Ritchie-Bennett and David Wails concluded that their deaths were "probably avoidable".

Judge Coroner Sir Adrian Fulford said the deaths of the three men were "contributed to by the failings of multiple agencies".

The three friends were meeting for a picnic in Reading's Forbury Gardens in June 2020 when they were stabbed by Libyan national Khairi Saadallah.

Reading Refugee Support Group has revealed that Saadallah turned to the charity for help in 2016.

James Furlong, David Wails and Joe Ritchie-Bennett were killed in the attack in Forbury Gardens in 2020. Credit: Thames Valley Police/Family handouts

Emails, exclusively seen by ITV News Meridian, were sent by the group's CEO to health and probation officials, in 2019 and 2020.

In one email, sent on the 18 December 2019 to Berkshire West Clinical Commissioning Group, Nick Harborne wrote: "We have another client who is currently in prison who, in my opinion, has been totally let down by the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust.

"It is widely acknowledged he is now in the greatest danger of being radicalised whilst in prison than ever before.

"I think we ignore what has just happened on London Bridge, 29th November at our peril. I would like to discuss this."

Reading terror attacker Khairi Saadallah Credit: Thames Valley Police

Mr Harborne was never given the chance to discuss his concerns with the CCG.

He also sent two emails to the Probation Service. The first on the 12 June 2020 - the day after Saadallah was released from prison which was just two weeks before the attack.

Mr Harborne wrote: "I am seriously concerned we could have an incident not dissimilar to the London Bridge attack in November last year if he becomes unwell."

He had previously written to prison officials on the 4 February 2020, warning: "My overall concern is that something similar to the recent events on London Bridge may occur on his release."

Speaking exclusively to ITV News Meridian, Mr Harborne said he witnessed first hand Saadallah’s capacity for violence during a support session back in 2016.

"He came to us initially to get help for assisted voluntary return, and his story was that he wanted to go home to fight to avenge the death of his family members who had been killed," Mr Harborne said.

"There was one incident during a support session where he was drinking. 

"I don't know if he was on medication and drinking on it, or not on medication but should have been, but he became increasingly agitated and violent, and aggressive throughout the support session.

"The alarm was raised and I intervened, and he ended up kicking his way quite violently out of the office.

"He didn't assault any member of staff at Refugee Support Group, but he then assaulted a couple of members of the public on the street outside."

  • Nick Harborne, CEO, of the Reading Refugee Support Group believes the attack was "totally avoidable"

Nick admits it was at that point he felt Saadallah had serious mental health concerns.

"I had to give evidence at his trial, and he was imprisoned," Nick added. 

"It was at that point that I realised that this young man was probably likely to be going in and out of prison, and that he was at risk of being radicalised because he'd shown that he wanted to fight.

"Young vulnerable people in prison, they're targets. 

"I started trying to help him and make sure he got the appropriate support."

Four years before the attack Mr Harborne raised concerns with the local NHS, what was previously known as the Clinical Commissioning Group.

"I talked to as many people I thought might be in a position to help get him the support he needed," Nick said.

"We had a number of professional meetings at various points where we discussed the ongoing support for him, but I don't think we really put in place a proper plan to help him."

Nick revealed when he heard what had happened in Forbury Gardens on that tragic day, he 'immediately knew' that it was Saadallah.

"I didn't have to turn the telly on or anything. I just knew. It just made me feel sick.

"It's just a very isolating period because a lot of things go through your mind. What did we do? What did we not do? What more should we have done? 

"It's very tragic and it didn't need to happen really.

"I think it was preventable."

The three friends were meeting in Reading's Forbury Gardens in June 2020 when they were stabbed by Libyan national Khairi Saadallah. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Reading Refugee Action group said following the identification of Khaira Saadallah, the local refugee and asylum-seeking community were "living in fear".

Nick's revealed the organisation received a number of calls from clients asking whether it's safe to go out or whether they can send their children to school.

"In my opinion, he was a refugee but it was just nothing to do with terrorism, he just had terrible mental health challenges. 

"The story he told us, he was a child soldier basically, so how can he not have had mental health problems? 

"As a child, he had to pick up a gun, kill people, torture people, be shot at. How can anybody say that mental health was not an issue in his case."

Asked if he feels sorry for him, or if he was let down, Nick added: "I think he murdered three people.

"I think he had a choice over that and he didn't have to do it. I think he is in absolutely the right place now and I don't think he should ever be released.

"But in the four years prior to the day he killed three innocent people, I think collectively we've all let him down.

"I think if we'd done more to help him, the Forbury Gardens murders wouldn't have happened."

A permanent memorial to the victims was unveiled in Forbury Gardens on 20 June 2023. Credit: ITV News Meridian

A spokesperson for the Berkshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: "We would like to extend our sincere condolences to all of the families and friends of the victims of the tragic Forbury Gardens incident.

"Since then, there has been significant learning with changes focussed on much better communication and engagement with our partners and the way in which multi-agency working is delivered.

"We will now review the coroner’s findings and work alongside all agencies involved, to ensure any further learning and improvements can be agreed and embedded as quickly as possible."

Assistant Chief Constable Tim Metcalfe, chief officer lead for Counter Terrorism Policing South East spoke outside the Old Bailey, on behalf of Thames Valley Police, following the conclusion of the inquest.

  • Assistant Chief Constable Tim Metcalfe, Thames Valley Police, speaking outside the Old Bailey

He said: "Today, my thoughts, and those of everyone at Counter Terrorism Policing and Thames Valley Police are with the families and friends of James Furlong, Joseph Ritchie-Bennett, and Dr David Wails.

"They are also with the people of Reading, who I know have been deeply affected by what happened in Forbury Gardens on the 20th June 2020.

"Throughout the inquest hearing, the families and loved ones of those killed that evening have shown great dignity during what must have been an extremely traumatic and difficult process.

"I appreciate their enduring patience and understanding, given the time it has taken to get to this stage. Throughout this hearing, they have heard detailed evidence about what happened and what was known about the offender prior to the incident from a range of different agencies. It cannot be underestimated how difficult that is to hear.

"We acknowledge the conclusions given by the Judge Coroner today, which we will of course need time to fully consider and we await the full details of any formal recommendations.

"However, we, in policing, have not waited until this point to make changes where needed. When reviewing our actions in relation to this case, we identified a number of areas where changes were needed or processes could be improved.

"Much has already been done to address these issues, but let me be clear, I know that there is still work to do. We are unrelenting in our commitment to learn, change and improve where required. We will continue to work with other agencies locally and nationally to ensure learning from this terrible attack is shared and acted upon.

"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.

"Policing is full of people who work hard every single day to help protect others and help them in their hour of need. We heard evidence during the inquest about the bravery of on duty and off duty officers who administered first aid and who ran towards the attacker to arrest and detain him. We also heard about those who work tirelessly behind the scenes.

"We must not lose sight of this part of police work, but we must also understand when we need to change our response and approach.

"We must now fully review and reflect on the conclusions from the Judge Coroner and ensure we do all we can to strengthen our efforts to keep our communities and our country safe."

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