LONDON — In a city on edge over a series of Islamist-inspired attacks, where police keep extensive watchlists and monitor potential militants, terror took a new turn when a van plowed into a group of Muslim worshippers here Monday.
A man identified as Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old Welshman from Cardiff, was allegedly behind the wheel. He was not an any security watchlists. But if he took the authorities by surprise, the act capped a growing dread in London’s Muslim community.
Witnesses said the driver was heard shouting after he was wrestled to the ground that he wanted to kill Muslims. It was chilling but not, in the Finsbury Park neighborhood, entirely unexpected. Fears have been growing among Muslims here that they could be singled out by extremists in tit-for-tat attacks because of other attacks carried out in the name of Islam, even though they are widely denounced by the mainstream Muslim community.
Monday’s early morning attack was confounding in another way, too. Using vans, trucks or cars as weapons poses huge challenges to public safety. Hours after the London attack, a man in Paris drove his car into a police car; only the attacker died, but it underscored the difficulty of defending against violence by vehicle.
The Paris assailant has not been publicly identified but was known to French authorities, the Associated Press reported, and was listed in a dossier of people suspected of posing a threat to national security.
In England, an attack by a man who was on no one’s radar has deepened the anxiety, especially as he appears to have deliberately targeted Muslims. (Scotland Yard has not confirmed that the suspect, who was arrested, is Osborne; he was identified by several British media outfits.)
“We don’t feel safe anywhere,” said a young man who gave his name as Adil Rana. “We don’t feel safe walking the streets or going to the mosque.”
The incident occurred in Finsbury Park, for years considered to be a hotbed of Islamist extremism. A relatively deprived immigrant neighborhood in north London, it is the home of the Finsbury Park Mosque – once notorious for housing the radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was later extradited to the United States and found guilty of terrorism charges.
But like many of its surrounding neighborhoods, the area has rapidly gentrified in recent years, arguably becoming both more diverse and tolerant at the same time. Kebab shops sit comfortably next to cafes serving flat white espressos. Finsbury Park Mosque has undergone its own dramatic reforms over the previous decade, too, with its extremist edges stripped away.
For the past decade, the mosque has sought to emphasize, according to its website, the “true teachings of Islam as a religion of tolerance, cooperation and peaceful harmony amongst all people who lead a life of balance, justice and mutual respect.”
In 2014 it won a prestigious award for its services to the community. But its past links to extremism have made it – and its neighborhood – a target for criticism from Britain’s far right.
Even before this attack, Muslims said they have seen a sharp rise in hate crimes, here and elsewhere in Britain.
“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.
At least 10 people were injured when the van hit the crowd of worshippers who had just left a Ramadan prayer service at the Muslim Welfare House, in Finsbury Park. One man died at the scene, but police said that he was receiving first aid before the van struck, and it was unclear whether he died as a result of the attack.
Abdulrahman Aidroos said he and his friends were attending to the man who had collapsed when suddenly he saw a van driving “straight into us.”
The driver of the van jumped out 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.’”
The driver was subdued by the outraged group, but one of the mosque imams appealed for calm, possibly sparing him serious harm.
“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,” Imam Mohammed Mahmoud, of the Muslim Welfare House, 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.”
Rana, who witnessed the incident, said the attacker tried to taunt onlookers as he was arrested.
“He said, ‘I’d do it again,’” Rana said. “It was a premeditated attack. He picked this area well, and he knows Finsbury Park is predominantly a Muslim area.”
Many Muslims feared possible copycat attacks, urging extra security for mosques and other sites. East London Mosque, one of the city’s largest, said it was evacuated on Monday after receiving a fake bomb threat.
Neil Basu, a London police official, told reporters the case was being treated as a terrorist attack. The suspect was arrested on terrorism charges as well as attempted murder.
British Prime Minister Theresa May met with members of the Muslim community even as they denounced a rising climate of anti-Islamic sentiment. Her response contrasted with her handling of a deadly fire in London last week, when she was widely criticized for not meeting survivors on the first day of the disaster.
This was the third attack in London this year involving vehicles, and it came a month after a suicide bombing in Manchester killed 23 people and injured more than 100.
May described Monday’s attack as “every bit as sickening” as those that have come before. She also hailed the “bravery” of those who detained the driver at the scene.
“Hatred and evil of this kind will never succeed,” she said.
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.
Saadiq Mizou, a 35-year-old chef originally from Belgium, said the attack had made him reconsider whether he could go to the mosques in Finsbury Park again.
“Twenty days in a row I’ve been here,” he said. “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.”