London attack: Security services wrestle with copycat terror threat

'I’m not surprised, with what they must have feared were three suicide bombers, that the firearms officers fired an unprecedented number of rounds'

Kim Sengupta
Monday 05 June 2017 07:13
People flee the area amid the London Bridge attack
People flee the area amid the London Bridge attack

Theresa May has warned in the aftermath of the London atrocity of how “terrorism breeds terrorism” with violent extremists carrying out copycat attacks “often using the crudest means” to maim and murder.

The rise of such attacks, with Islamists emulating previous acts of terror, is a matter of deep concern, say security sources, with difficulties in uncovering plots by small groups who may not have links with established jihadi networks, and thus may have escaped scrutiny.

The weapons used in the London attack, killing seven people and injuring 48 others – 21 critically – were knives and a hired van, echoing the Westminster attacker Khalid Masood who killed five people using knives and a hired car; Anas Amri who killed 12 people in Berlin using a hired truck; and Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who killed 86 in Nice using a hired truck.

Meanwhile, on a day of dramatic developments:

  • Isis claimed responsibility for the attacks
  • First two of seven fatalities identified as one Canadian citizen, Christine Archibald, and one French citizen
  • Theresa May calls for crackdown on “safe spaces for extremists” online 
  • Jeremy Corbyn tells Theresa May 'you cannot protect public on the cheap'
  • Police say member of the public shot in crossfire as officers fired 50 bullets

The three London attackers wore fake suicide vests. It remains unclear why this was done; one theory is that they may have believed that police, wary of the devices being detonated, would keep their distance. In the event eight armed officers shot them dead using 50 rounds.

Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley, of Scotland Yard, said “I’m not surprised, with what they must have feared were three suicide bombers, that the firearms officers fired an unprecedented number of rounds to be completely confident they had neutralised the threat that those men posed.” A member of the public was also shot accidentally, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Counter-terrorist officials were confident in the aftermath that the killers shot dead by armed police would be identified and their addresses and associates would be quickly tracked down. That is what appears to have happened with the raids carried out in Barking, east London, in which 12 people were arrested, followed by further searches and five arrests in nearby East Ham in the afternoon.

It is not known at this stage if the terrorists were known to the police or security and intelligence agencies. The downgrading of the threat level – raised to the highest classification after the Manchester suicide bombing – indicates that there was no knowledge that an attack was being planned. And the decision by JTAC (Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre) not to upgrade the threat back to critical points to there being no information that people linked to last night’s killers are planning another attack.

Early information suggested that the London attack may not have been long in planning. A resident of the Elizabeth Fry flats in Barking, where the arrests took place today, said one of the suspects had approached him on Saturday “and asked where I had hired a van recently. He said he needed one as he was going to move house. He was acting strangely, he was being nicer than normal.”

The suspect was described as being of Pakistani background. “He was always chatty and very friendly. He was always a very sociable person, it is such a shock. I knew he lectured people on the Quaran and there were always people dressed in robes coming in and out of his apartment,” said the neighbour.

Another resident, Ken Chigbo, was also asked about a van by the man with a similar show of friendliness. “I am moving house at the moment, so I had a big van outside. He came up to me and said ‘oh Ken, you’re moving’. He’s usually a very friendly guy, but this time it was on a different level of nice” recalled Mr Chigbo.

“And he started asking about the van. ‘Where did you get the van Ken ? How much is it? Is it possible to get it in automatic? All these specific questions about the van, which obviously now makes sense in my head.”

Farqan Navi recognised one of his neighbours from photographs as one of the killers who had been shot dead in Borough Market. “He lived there with his wife and two children, he had been there for three years,” he added. Another resident agreed that one of the dead attackers lived in the block of flats. “I realised it was him,” she said. “It is shocking. Everybody here has children and jobs. We never thought anyone here would have the type of mentality to do something like that.

"I used to see them every night, He had a wife and child and would drop them off home and would look for a parking spot. He never used to communicate with the women here. The police were photographing the man’s car this morning, it was a red Peugeot.”

Salahudee Jayabdeen, 40, said that one of the suspects had been thrown out of a local mosque, Jabir Bin Zyadm after getting involved in an argument with the imam. He could not, however, recall what the disagreement was about.

Scotland Yard Commissioner Cressida Dick said “ We have a very large investigation ongoing and we will be seeking to establish whether anyone else was working with or assisting in any way, or helping in the planning of this attack in the way you would expect.” A security official stated “We are getting useful information which will take the investigation forward. We start from the attack last night and we are putting together the picture of what happened, how it was organised and who these people may have been associating with.”

However, as many as 23,000 people have appeared on the radar of counter-terror agencies with 500 investigations taking place into 3,000 individuals who are considered to be potentially capable of carrying out terrorist acts.

Under the circumstances there is broad consensus that it would be impossible to track Islamist extremists unless the Muslim community is prepared to provide information to the police and security agencies. Taking a notably harder stance than after the Manchester attack, the Prime Minister decried on Sunday what she held was “far too much tolerance of extremism in our country”. As well as a review of counter-terrorism policies, she said that combating indoctrination “will require some difficult, and often embarrassing, conversations”.

The effectiveness of the Government’s Prevent strategy, set up to counter radicalisation, has been called into question. But last week one of the UK’s most prominent Muslim lawyers accused an “industry“ of Muslim groups of spreading deliberate misinformation about the strategy. Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor, condemned “self-appointed” community leaders whose sole agenda was to present Muslims “as victims and not as those who are potentially becoming radicals”.

There will be increasing focus on this highly charged and contentious issue in the coming days as the investigation continues into the latest terrorist atrocity to hit this country.

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