For love of London: three terror attacks and a fire put Britain’s capital to the test

Britain has endured a tumultuous period in recent months including terror attacks, a catastrophic fire and a dramatic election that left Prime Minister Theresa May’s government badly weakened

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 7:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 10:00pm

At 11am Monday, firefighters and police gathered under the burnt-out shell of Grenfell Tower to pay their respects to the victims of last week’s devastating inferno.

The minute’s silence was replicated at hundreds of schools, offices and government buildings across the British capital, as Londoners united in sadness and support for survivors and relatives.

Yet even as the city mourned those lost five days earlier in the catastrophic blaze, a fresh disaster was unfolding across town.

It was another terrorist attack, but with a new twist. Rather than an assault on innocent civilians of diverse backgrounds mounted by one or more Islamic extremists, with international terror group Islamic State claiming responsibility, this attack had been perpetrated on a group of Muslim residents peacefully returning from prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

Echoing recent terror attacks at London Bridge, Westminster, Berlin and Nice, the terrorist had driven a van into a group of innocent people at about 12.20am in Finsbury Park, North London.

The group were helping an elderly man who had fallen ill while returning from the Finsbury Park Mosque, when the van ploughed into them, injuring 10. The elderly man subsequently died, but police could not say whether his death was due to the attack or to illness.

As in the London Bridge attack on June 3, people responded with acts of bravery and mutual support. A group of men pursued the attacker and pinned him to the ground, while the police were called. The suspect was arrested at the scene and police later named him as Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old father of four from Cardiff. Abdul Rahman, one of the pursuers, spoke to the man when he was on the ground.

“I asked him: ‘Why did you do that, why? Innocent people,’ and he goes; ‘I want to kill Muslims – and kill me,’ Rahman told the BBC.

“I said, ‘We’re not going to kill you. Why did you do that?’ and he wouldn’t answer me back.”

The incident is Britain’s fourth major terrorist attack in less than three months and the third to take place in London, where a total of 15 people have died in the assaults.

Meanwhile, police announced Monday that the death toll from the Grenfell Tower blaze had risen to 79 and could increase further. The demands and wide-ranging lessons of that disaster are expected to take months to address, yet the authorities that are struggling to meet them now face further challenges.

Ironically, Monday’s attack came the day after a nationwide series of events held in memory of Labour MP Jo Cox, who was assassinated in her Yorkshire constituency by a Nazi sympathiser a year ago, during the EU Referendum campaign.

The events, which were designed to bring communities together and heal divisions, were held under an initiative called the Great Get Together that was organised by the MP’s family and friends.

The attack also coincided with – and overshadowed - the formal start of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels that are set to take the UK out of the European Union.

The talks began amid political uncertainty after the Queen’s speech and State Opening of Parliament - - were postponed to Wednesday.

Watch: British PM condemns ‘sickening’ attack as van rams Muslim worshippers

In a highly unusual move, they were pushed back by Downing Street after Prime Minister Theresa May failed to win a majority in the general election on 8 June, leaving her desperately chasing a deal with Northern Ireland’s controversial Democratic Unionist Party.

May, who faced a barrage of criticism over her handling of the Grenfell Tower fire, moved swiftly to condemn the Finsbury Park attack, stage a meeting of the government’s security committee Cobra and go to the mosque in person.

She said it was “an act of hatred, every bit as sickening as other recent terrorist attacks” that would not succeed and praised London as an “extraordinary city of extraordinary people”.

The attack took place in the constituency of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who twice visited the area and stressed the need for “efficient and effective policing” and “an attitude in our society of support for each other”.

Britain’s threat level from international terrorism has been rated “severe” since August 2014 and rose to “critical” for three days after the Manchester Arena bombing on May 22.

There have been 304 terrorism-related arrests in the past year – the highest number since records began in 2001 and an 18 per cent increase of the previous year, according to a UK Home Office bulletin released on last Thursday.

Of these, 108 arrests resulted in charges, of which 84 per cent were terrorism-related. The report noted that the increase was driven by a 66 per cent rise in the number of arrests relating to “white” ethnic groups, with 113 such people apprehended, compared to 68 the previous year.

In the wake of the three recent international terror attacks, police have also noted a rise in Islamophobic violence, with 20 such incidents recorded on 6 June, compared to a seasonal norm of about three per day.

After early criticism from the local community that the attack was not being handled as an act of terrorism, the Metropolitan Police stressed that investigations were being led by Counter Terrorism Command and the incident had been operationally treated as a terrorist attack from the outset.

With London the primary focus of the recent attacks, the force has now cancelled all leave for officers and is putting more bobbies on the beat in every borough.

As faith leaders including the Chief Rabbi and Archbishop of Canterbury joined the condemnations of the attack, London Mayor Sadiq Kahn pledged further additional policing for Muslim communities.

“Towards the end of the month of Ramadan, it is the very highest part of the month, more and more worshippers go to the mosque, particularly in the evenings,” he said

“What we don’t want to do is let anybody think they can’t go about their lives because they are feeling vulnerable or scared.”

With the prime minister widely regarded as critically weakened and the country waiting until Wednesday for details of how the minority government will operate, the Queen took the highly unusual step of using her official birthday on Saturday to make a statement about the “very sombre national mood”.

Londoners too have responded with their legendary “Blitz” spirit of courage and resilience, while donations and supplies have poured in from the public for the Grenfell Tower survivors. Hours after Monday’s attack a London Underground worker at Finsbury Park Station wrote a message on the station’s whiteboard that has gone viral on social media.

“Tough times don’t last,” it stated.

“Tough people do stick together. All of us.”

Key dates: Britain’s time of tumult

March 22: Khalid Masood drives a rented car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London and stabs to death an unarmed police officer guarding the British parliament. Five people are killed before Masood is shot dead by a ministerial bodyguard.

May 22: Suicide bomber Salman Abedi, a 22-year-old British man of Libyan origin, blows himself up outside a pop concert in Manchester. The attack kills 22 people, a third of them children.

June 3: Three assailants wearing fake suicide vests plough through pedestrians in a van before going on a stabbing rampage in bars near London Bridge.

June 8: Britain votes in a snap general election called by May in a bid to increase her slender parliamentary majority. The gamble fails.

June 14: A massive fire rips through a 24-storey apartment block in west London, trapping residents inside as 200 firefighters battle the blaze.Seventy-nine people are killed or missing.

June 19: A van drives through a crowd of Muslim worshippers near Finsbury Park Mosque in north London, leaving person dead and injuring 10 more.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse