London Bridge attack: Gym owner ‘cannot recall’ content of 329 text messages with ringleader

Communications must have been about the gym, says former al-Muhajiroun member Sajeel Shahid

Lizzie Dearden
Security Correspondent, at the Old Bailey
Tuesday 25 June 2019 13:39 BST
Khuram Butt in ‘The Jihadis Next Door’ documentary
Khuram Butt in ‘The Jihadis Next Door’ documentary (Channel 4)

The man who owned a gym and school where the London Bridge attack ringleader worked has claimed he “cannot recall” the content of hundreds of messages they exchanged.

Sajeel Shahid, a former member of Anjem Choudary’s al-Muhajiroun Islamist network, claimed he had no “social or personal relationship” with Khuram Butt.

But while being questioned at the inquest into the deaths of eight victims killed in the London Bridge attack, he struggled to explain the extent of their phone contact.

The Old Bailey heard that there were 39 phone calls and 329 text messages between Butt’s phone and one shared by Mr Shahid in the six months before the attack.

“I think it’s to do with gym related affairs,” Mr Shahid said. “Maybe I was on broadcast group where he sent messages.”

He added: “I can’t remember, if it’s that many it’s got to be normal messages about fitness or normal messages about Islam.

“I can’t remember him sending me messages that were in their nature extremist or violent.”

He claimed he met Butt occasionally at the Ummah Fitness Centre (UFC) where the terrorist worked in Ilford, but denied directly employing or managing him.

Mr Shahid said he did not write the statement posted on the gym’s door after the attack that claimed: “While Mr Butt did occasionally train here at UFC gym, we do not know him well.”

He told the court he had “very little contact” with Butt and could “not recall” the content of their messages and phone calls, even those late at night.

“It must be about the gym,” Mr Shahid said. “I have a vast knowledge about the gym, fitness, dieting… it was not just me answering it but rest assured all the matters were related to the gym only.”

Mr Shahid told the court he had “nothing to hide” and claimed police could exonerate him by viewing the messages. When questioned by a lawyer representing six victims’ families, he suggested he would be happy to hand over the phone to officers after leaving the courtroom.

But a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police told The Independent: “After the witness finished giving his evidence, officers who carried out the investigation into the attack on behalf of the coroner made contact with him, but he subsequently declined to provide his phone to them.”

He said he had never visited Butt’s house, attended social gatherings with him or met his wife and children, adding: “I did not have a social or personal relationship with him.”

Mr Shahid denied the possibility that Butt and fellow attackers, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba, used the gym to prepare for their atrocity, after they were caught on CCTV having a secretive late-night meeting there just days before.

Attackers shouted 'this is for Allah' says London Bridge eyewitness

He denied knowing Butt through al-Muhajiroun, saying he left the banned extremist organisation more than a decade before Butt joined.

Mr Shahid said he also “did not recall” how Butt started teaching children the Quran at an Islamic primary school he set up with his former partner.

He said Ad-Deen primary school, which has since been shut down, was “not his concern” since he stepped down from a leadership role after being accused of running terror training camps.

Mr Shahid denied the allegations, which emerged in the 2007 fertiliser bomb plot trial. He also denied leading the al-Muhajiroun network in Pakistan.

Parents at the school claimed their children said Butt told them non-Muslims were the “worst creatures” and that they could lie to their parents “when there is a state of war”.

Mr Shahid said he did not discuss Butt with the school’s headteacher, his former partner Sophie Rahman, because their relationship had deteriorated.

“Nobody knew what he was going to commit,” he added. “How am I supposed to know what he is thinking, what he was planning, what he was in mind?

“If I ever knew he was capable of anything like this I would have reported him to police and had him arrested.”

Detective Superintendent Becky Riggs, a senior investigating officer, told the inquest that before the attacks, counterterror police were not aware of Mr Shahid’s links to the gym or school and that he repeatedly refused to cooperate with police.

The Ummah Fitness Centre in Ilford (AFP/Getty)
The Ummah Fitness Centre in Ilford (AFP/Getty) (AFP/Getty Images)

Butt’s sister, Haleema Butt, told the inquest the family came to the UK from Pakistan in 1997 and were “not very religious” Muslims.

She described her brother as a “naughty” child who was more interested in football and rap music than world affairs and religion, until a sudden change in 2012.

Ms Butt said her brother told her to wear a headscarf and be a “good Islamic mother” to her children, and was disgusted at her job “protecting non-believers” at Heathrow airport.

She described how Butt “cut off” non-Muslim friends – he had known since childhood – in 2013 and started praying five times a day and wearing Islamic dress.

The family argued when he expressed the desire to marry a second wife in 2015, she told the court. She remembered Butt called fellow Muslims who threw him out of a mosque for railing against democratic elections “sheep”.

She also recalled an argument with Butt when he defended hate preacher Choudary, and watching him in The Jihadis Next Door documentary, but defended her decision not to alert authorities and said she did not know of his plans.

“I think deep down I was just hoping that phase would pass,” Ms Butt told the court. “He shaved his beard off and started wearing normal clothes, I thought he was backing off from this whole Islamic thing.”

Her now-estranged husband, Usman Darr, had reported Butt to the terror hotline over support for Isis in September 2015 but Ms Butt said he did not tell her at the time.

Inquests into the deaths of the eight victims of the London Bridge attack will be followed by separate inquests into the attackers, who were shot dead by armed police on 3 June 2017.

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