Counter-terrorism police are investigating a suspected racially motivated arson attack on a Somali community centre in Muswell Hill, north London, by a far-right group amid fears of a backlash against the Muslim community following the Woolwich terror attack.
Investigators are examining the wreckage of the damaged Bravanese Welfare Centre in north London after the three letters EDL – English Defence League - were found freshly painted on the building’s outside walls, according to the centre’s leaders and police.
The leader of the EDL, a group that shuns mainstream political activity in favour of volatile street protests against immigration, denied any role and said that any such attack would be “disgusting”.
If it proves to be an attack from a far-right group, it will be the most serious so far despite a reported reduction in incidents of reported abuse against the Muslim community following the Woolwich attack that killed Drummer Lee Rigby, 25, on May 22.
Scotland Yard specialist investigators are conducting a fingertip search of the area in Muswell Hill and trying to establish if the daubed paint was linked to the fire, which is currently being treated as “suspicious”.
Chief Superintendent Adrian Usher said: “Obviously a focal point of the investigation will be establishing whether that is connected to the fire".
The fire brigade was called at 3.23am amid reports of an explosion at the centre and nobody was believed to be at the centre at the time.
Senior community leaders told The Independent that the building, which partially collapsed after the fire, has never before been the target of an attack. One woman living nearby was treated for shock.
The attack has been passed to the Yard’s counter-terrorism team which has specialist knowledge of the EDL, founded in 2009 in response to protests by radical Islamists at a homecoming parade for soliders returning from Iraq.
The EDL and has built up an active membership of up to 35,000 people, according to the Demos thinktank, though splits within its ranks have meant that its volatile street demonstrations are mustering only a few hundred people.
The Government’s own counter-terrorism strategy in March this year said: “We know these extreme Islamist and far right organisations feed off one another and try to create enmity, suspicions and hatred between our communities.”
Condemnation for the attack came swiftly from across the political spectrum with London Mayor Boris Johnson describing the attack as “cowardly, pathetic and utterly pointless”.
“There is no place in an open, tolerant and diverse city like London for hate, for prejudice, for violence,” he said.
The EDL’s leader Tommy Robinson said he doubted any members of the group were behind the graffiti but condemned the attack. “I may be proved wrong, but EDL graffiti gets used for a lot of things,” he said. “I’m always sceptical.”
Asked if he would report any of his members, he said: “I would, they have put innocent people’s lives in danger. It’s disgusting. I’ve asked our members never to attack mosques or Muslims. The police will find out who has done that and they will be rightly punished.”
The fire comes at a sensitive time following the Woolwich attack and in the week that a group of Islamist extremists are due to be sentenced over a murderous but ultimately bungled plot to launch a gun and bomb attack on hundreds of people attending an EDL rally in Dewsbury last year.
There was shock in Muswell Hill where the suspected attack happened where leaders described it as an attack on a peaceful community.
The centre was not a mosque or used for prayer but hosted Arabic classes for members of the Sudanese and Somali community during the week, said police.
Becky Marks, whose 5-year-old daughter goes to the school next door, said: “one of the things about this community is that it's so diverse. It's just utterly unbelievable, completely shocking, so unexpected in this area.”
Marcia, who declined to give her last name, has lived on the estate by the centre for 46 years since moving from Jamaica. “I've never felt reluctant to walk the street at night before because of the colour of my skin. Now I'll think again,” she said.
Drummer Rigby accused’s court hearing
One of the men accused of murdering Drummer Lee Rigby railed against his treatment in detention during a hearing at the Old Bailey.
Speaking by videolink from Belmarsh prison, Michael Adebolajo – who has asked to be called Mujahid Abu Hamza – repeatedly interrupted legal arguments. The 28-year-old had earlier complained that he had to undergo two strip-searches before his appearance.
He will next appear at the court alongside co-defendant Michael Adebowale on 28 June.