A US defence official working at GCHQ was stabbed last week in a car park in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, a couple of miles from the British spy agency’s distinctive doughnut-shaped headquarters.
The victim, a woman, survived the incident which took place outside a leisure centre in the evening. A 29-year-old man from the town was arrested, initially on suspicion of attempted murder, and then on suspected terror offences.
Neither GCHQ, counter-terror police or the US embassy would comment on the victim’s profession, but sources have indicated she was a US defence department officer, who has not been named, working on secondment.
Though she has been described as a spy in some media reports, she is not believed to have had a senior role. Nevertheless, there have been requests to keep the victim’s identity confidential as the investigation unfolds.
The incident took place at 9.15pm on Thursday 9 March, with the woman badly hurt after being stabbed in a car outside a local leisure centre. She survived after calling for help from staff at the nearby sports facility, which was still open.
Counter-terror police said she had “sustained serious injuries” after the incident and had to be swiftly taken to hospital, where her condition stabilised.
Initially the violent episode was not treated as terror-related, but “due to some specific details of this incident”, Counter Terrorism Policing South East took over and rearrested the man on Saturday. Officers have until Thursday to continue questioning him.
There continued to be a police presence around locations linked to the stabbing on Wednesday, although Gloucestershire police, assisting, said: “We believe this was an isolated incident.” The local force added it was not aware of any wider threat to the public.
Officers are believed to have searched a house about four miles from the leisure centre. They have also investigated a house in the centre of the Regency town where the victim is believed to have lived for a while.
GCHQ has a policy of neither confirming nor denying the identity of its employees. It is not uncommon for US personnel to be working on secondment at the agency as part of the “Five Eyes” relationship between anglophone agencies from the UK, the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
Counter Terror Police South East said a man “has been arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism contrary to section 41 of the Terrorism Act (2000), as well as on suspicion of preparing acts of terrorism under section 5 of the Terrorism Act (2006)”.
A US official said: “We are aware of the press reports. Due to privacy considerations, we have no comment at this time. We refer you to HMG [British] authorities for questions regarding the incident and investigation.”
One of the unanswered questions is why Counter Terrorism Policing South East is leading the investigation, rather than Counter Terrorism Policing South West, which covers Gloucestershire.
The case has put additional pressure on Gloucestershire constabulary at a time when it is dealing with a huge influx of racegoers attending the Cheltenham festival.