Van strikes crowd near London mosques in 'terrorist attack'

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LONDON — A driver who plowed a van into a group of Muslims leaving nighttime prayers was not on any security watch lists, authorities said Monday, as London was gripped by its third terrorist blow in as many months.

The attacks in London have a common and unsettling thread — each used a vehicle as a mobile weapon — but the latest chaos outside two north London mosques stood apart as an apparent attempt to target Muslims.

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Van strikes crowd near London mosques in 'terrorist attack'

About London
London /ˈlʌndən/ is the capital and most populous city of England and the United Kingdom. Standing on the River Thames in the south east of the island of Great Britain, London has been a major settlement for two millennia. It was founded by the Romans, who named it Londinium. London’s ancient core, the City of London, largely retains its 1.12-square-mile (2.9 km2) medieval boundaries. Since at least the 19th century, “London” has also referred to the metropolis around this core, historically split between Middlesex, Essex, Surrey, Kent, and Hertfordshire, which today largely makes up Greater London, governed by the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.
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London has a diverse range of people and cultures, and more than 300 languages are spoken in the region. Its estimated mid-2015 municipal population (corresponding to Greater London) was 8,673,713, the largest of any city in the European Union, and accounting for 12.5% of the UK population. London’s urban area is the second most populous in the EU, after Paris, with 9,787,426 inhabitants at the 2011 census. The city’s metropolitan area is the most populous in the EU with 13,879,757 inhabitants, while the Greater London Authority states the population of the city-region (covering a large part of the south east) as 22.7 million. London was the world’s most populous city from around 1831 to 1925.
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Ten people were injured. One man died at the scene, but police said that he was receiving first aid before the van struck the worshipers, and it was unclear if he died as a result of the attack.

Witnesses said the driver was heard shouting that he wanted to kill Muslims after he was wrestled to the ground. In a stunning twist, however, the suspect may have been spared serious harm from the outraged crowd after one of the mosque imams appealed for calm.

Van strikes crowd near London mosques in 'terrorist attack'

While authorities have not released the name or background of the suspect, the attack immediately stoked tensions in a city already on a razor’s edge after apparently Islamist inspired attacks. In addition to the three attacks in London involving vehicles, a suicide bombing in Manchester last month killed 23 people and injured more than 100.

Average Muslims feared possible backlash, urging extra security for mosques and other sites. And counterterrorism authorities were now exploring the possibility that Muslims weretargeted as they question the suspect and dig into his views.

“This man was not known to the authorities in the space of extremism or far-right extremism,” Ben Wallace, a security minister in Britain’s Home Office, told Sky News. “He clearly took advantage of a simple weapon, I’m afraid, a vehicle, to make an attack on people going about their business.”

The attack unfolded as Muslims finished nighttime prayers during the holy month of Ramadan. The incident occurred near two mosques: the Muslim Welfare Society and the Finsbury Park Mosque, which was once considered a hotbed of radical preaching but is now seen as a leading voice in interfaith dialogue.

Abdulrahman Aidroos said he and his friends were attending to an elderly man who had collapsed on the ground when suddenly he saw a man in a van driving “straight into us.”

The driver of the van jumped out of the vehicle and tried to run, Aidroos said.

“I tackled him on the floor until the police came,” he told the BBC. “When he was running, he said, ‘I want to kill more people. I want to kill more Muslims.’”

Metropolitan Police Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu told reporters the case was being “treated as a terrorist attack.” He added that the driver of the van was arrested on suspicion of murder.

British Prime Minister Theresa May moved quickly to try to ease outrage on the streets. She met with members of the Muslim community even as they denounced a rising climate of anti-Islam sentiment.

Police said they have deployed extra officers “to reassure communities, especially those observing Ramadan.”

“Over the past weeks and months, Muslims have endured many incidents of Islamophobia, and this is the most violent manifestation to date,” said Harun Khan, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, in a statement.

May described the latest terrorist attack in London as “every bit as sickening” as those that have come before. She also hailed the “bravery” of locals for detaining the driver at the scene in the north London district of Finsbury Park.

“Hatred and evil of this kind will never succeed,” she said.

Amid the fallout, a potential hero emerged: the spiritual leader of the Muslim Welfare House, Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, who stepped in to protect the suspect from a mob seeking revenge.

“We found a group of people quickly started to collect around him, around the assailant. And some tried to hit him, either kicks or punches,” Mahmoud told reporters. “By God’s grace we managed to surround him and to protect him from any harm. We stopped all forms of attack and abuse toward him that were coming from every angle.”

He said he then flagged down a passing police car and told the officers: “There’s a mob attempting to hurt him. If you don’t take him, God forbid he might be seriously hurt.”

A witness, who gave his name as Adil Rana, said the attacker tried to taunt onlookers as he was arrested.

“He said, ‘I’d do it again,’” Rana told The Washington Post. “It was a premeditated attack. He picked this area well, and he knows Finsbury Park is predominantly a Muslim area.”

The incident early Monday follows two recent terrorist attacks in London in which vehicles have been used as weapons, both on bridges over the River Thames.

Eight people were killed last month when attackers used a van to plow into pedestrians on London Bridge, then got out to stab restaurant patrons with knives at the adjacent Borough Market. In March, a lone attacker drove his car into people on Westminster Bridge, then fatally stabbed a police officer at the gates of Parliament.

In both cases, the attackers were shot dead by security forces.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the city’s first Muslim mayor, called the incident a “horrific terrorist attack,” which was “clearly a deliberate attack on innocent Londoners, many of whom were finishing prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.”

“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,” he said in a statement.

During the weekend, the Muslim Welfare House hosted an event in memory of Jo Cox, a lawmaker who was murdered last year by a right-wing extremist. Tens of thousands of events were held up and down the country in celebration of the late lawmaker, who once said “we have far more in common than that which divides us.”

The Finsbury Park Mosque — located in a vibrant, multicultural area of north London — was once closely associated with extremism. But in the past decade, the mosque has transformed its image, with its leadership outspoken in advocating interfaith harmony.

During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign — amid the furor of candidate Donald Trump’s proposed Muslim ban — Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn invited Trump to visit the mosque to show him how “multicultural, multifaith” Britain works.

Saadiq Mizou, a 35-year-old chef originally from Belgium, said he had been outside the scene since 2 a.m. For him, the attack had made him reconsider whether he could go to the mosques in Finsbury Park again.

“Twenty days in row I’ve been here,” he explained. “Nothing happened. It’s all going good. People are eating, doing charity, doing things like helping people, praying and then going home. That’s it. And now that’s happening? We’re not safe. If I stay here, people could come and attack me with a car.

“It’s better to be safe and stay at home,” Mizou said. “Simple.”

Adam Taylor in London and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.