UK moves to ease tensions after van attack in London
London — The rash of deadly terror attacks that has rattled Britain in recent months took an ominous new turn on Monday as Muslim worshippers became targets during the holy month of Ramadan, mowed down by an attacker who plowed a van into a crowd leaving prayers at two mosques in north London.
It was the same tactic Islamic extremists used in recent assaults on Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. Those attacks and a third outside a pop concert in Manchester have triggered a surge in hate crimes against Muslims around Britain.
British authorities, including Prime Minister Theresa May, and Islamic leaders moved swiftly to ease concerns in the Muslim community following the attack shortly after midnight that injured at least nine people in London’s Finsbury Park neighborhood, which is home to a large Muslim population.
Authorities said the incident was being treated as a terror attack. One man died at the scene, although he was receiving first aid at the time and it wasn’t clear if he died as a result of the attack or from something else.
British media identified the suspect as Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old Briton and father of four living in Cardiff, Wales, who was not known to authorities before the attack.
Details about the assailant were sketchy, but the assault — the most dramatic against Muslims in London in recent years — suggested a new, dangerous level of polarization in British society.
“This was an attack on Muslims near their place of worship,” May said in a televised address. “And like all terrorism, in whatever form, it shares the same fundamental goal. It seeks to drive us apart — and to break the precious bonds of solidarity and citizenship that we share in this country. We will not let this happen.”
Mayor Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, also urged residents to stand together.
“While this appears to be an attack on a particular community, like the terrible attacks in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge, it is also an assault on all our shared values of tolerance, freedom and respect,” Khan said, adding that there would be “zero tolerance” for hate crimes.
“We will not allow these terrorists to succeed. … We will stay a strong city,” the mayor said.
May said police would assess security at mosques and provide any additional resources needed ahead of upcoming celebrations marking the end of Ramadan.
The Metropolitan Police Service, already stretched by investigations of the earlier attacks and a high-rise apartment fire that killed at least 79 people, said it was putting extra patrols on the streets to protect the public.
The attack occurred about 12:20 a.m. when a speeding white van swerved into worshippers emerging from prayers outside the Muslim Welfare House and nearby Finsbury Park Mosque. People surrounded the driver and witnesses said the outraged crowd began attacking him. A local imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, said he and others shielded the man until police could take him away.
“By God’s grace, we were able to protect him from harm,” the imam said.
Police said the driver was arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism, including murder and attempted murder.
Toufik Kacimi, chief executive of the Muslim Welfare House, told Sky News the attack clearly targeted Muslims, saying the driver acted deliberately and was not drunk or mentally ill.
“The driver of the van, said ‘I did my bit,’ which means he’s not mentally ill,” Kacimi said. “This person was conscious. He did what he did deliberately to hit and kill as many Muslims as possible, so he is a terrorist.”
But Kacimi said there was no need for the Muslim community to panic, because police and government officials have been “very, very supportive.”
“At this stage, we are calling for calm,” he said.
Monday’s attack hit a community already feeling targeted from the fallout from three previous attacks in as many months, all blamed on Islamic extremists. Hate crimes directed at Muslims have increased nearly five-fold, according to British security officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with official policy.
Ali Habib, a 23-year-old student, said residents were upset that Monday’s attack wasn’t portrayed in the same light as other attacks across Britain.
“There has been an outpouring of sympathy for all the recent terror attacks but hardly a whisper on this attack,” he said. “People are both scared and angry. Parents are scared to send their children to evening prayers. I don’t think people understand how much these attacks affect all of us.”
May attempted to counter that feeling, saying that police arrived at the scene within one minute, and that the incident was classified as a possible terror attack within eight minutes. The prime minister, who has been criticized for failing to show compassion to victims, traveled to the attack site within hours, and met with community and faith leaders.
“Diverse, welcoming, vibrant, compassionate, confident and determined never to give in to hate. These are the values that define this city,” she said later outside Downing Street. “These are the values that define this country.”
The attack occurred outside the Muslim Welfare House, a small mosque with about 200 congregants. Nearby, evening prayer services had just concluded at the larger Finsbury Park Mosque, which was associated with extremist ideology for several years after the 9/11 attacks. However, the mosque was shut down and reorganized and has not been associated with radical views for more than a decade.
The mosque’s current leaders say they support inter-faith dialogue and want to serve the community in north London, which is located near Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal soccer club.
Britain’s terror alert level is at “severe,” meaning security officials believe an attack is highly likely.
On June 3, Islamic extremists used a vehicle and then knives to kill eight people and wound dozens of others on London Bridge and in the popular Borough Market area. Police shot and killed the three Islamic extremists who carried out the attack. In March, a man plowed a rented SUV into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge, killing four people before stabbing a police officer to death outside Parliament. He was also killed by police.
Manchester was hit by a deadly attack on May 22 when a suicide bomber killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert.