LONDON, U.K. - Authorities in Britain woke up to the horror from another possible incident of terrorism on Monday after a van rammed into a group of pedestrians near the Finsbury Park Mosque, in North London.
British police confirmed later in the day that they were treated the early morning attack near the mosque as an act of terrorism against Muslims, amid fears of retaliation for several recent assaults in the country that were attributed to Islamist extremists.
The attack took place shortly after midnight after a van rammed into a group of worshippers leaving the Finsbury Park Mosque and reports stated that the imam of a nearby community center prevented the angry mob from attacking the driver after worshipers subdued him.
However, authorities confirmed that one person died at the scene and at least 10 others were wounded.
It was, however, not immediately clear if the death was caused by the attack and police identified the assailant as 47-year-old Darren Osborne from Cardiff, Wales.
The investigation will examine Osborne’s background and his motives.
The police said in a statement that the driver of the van was arrested after bystanders prevented him from fleeing.
Deputy Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu of the Metropolitan Police praised those who had intervened, saying they had responded quickly and calmly despite being shaken, scared or angry.
He said that the police had received a number of calls reporting that a van had rammed into pedestrians and that officers in the area had responded instantly.
Police officers immediately cordoned off a corner of Seven Sisters Road police vans that had been on site began to leave, though traffic on a nearby major thoroughfare, Blackstock Road, was restricted.
Forensics officers were analysing the van used by the attacker and reports said it was rented from Pontyclun Van Hire, in the Welsh village of Pontyclun, near Cardiff. The company said it was fully cooperating with the police.
In a statement, Jo Stevens, the member of Parliament for the Cardiff Central constituency, issued an appeal to the public for any information about him but also urged people to refrain from online speculation.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged “a difficult time in the life of the city.”
The attack was criticised by political and religious figures alike.
In a statement delivered in front of her offices at 10 Downing Street, May said the incident had been declared terrorism within eight minutes and denounced the assault as an act of “hatred” and “evil” against innocent civilians during the holy month of Ramadan.
She further added that security at mosques would be bolstered.
May said that London was an “extraordinary city” of “extraordinary people,” and that British values of freedom of speech and freedom of religion would prevail.
She called the attack a “sickening attempt” to destroy those freedoms and noted that extremism and hatred could take many forms. But added that the country would never give in.
Meanwhile, Harun Khan, secretary-general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said he recognised that many Muslims would be angry about the attack, and he appealed for calm, but he also warned of a rising tide of anti-Islamic sentiment.
Khan said, “During the night, ordinary British citizens were set upon while they were going about their lives, completing their night worship. Over the past weeks and months, Muslims have endured many incidents of Islamophobia, and this is the most violent manifestation to date.”
The Muslim Association of Britain has condemned the assault in Finsbury Park as an “evil terror attack” as the association called on the police to protect mosques and asked the government to fight hate crimes against Muslims.
In a statement, the organisation said, “We call on politicians to treat this major incident no less than a terrorist attack. We call on the government to do more to tackle this hateful evil ideology, which has spread over these past years and resulted in an increase of Islamophobic attacks and division of our society, as well as spreading of hate.”
Further, Shiraz Maher, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, at King’s College London, said that some supporters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were already seeking to exploit the attack by framing it as a part of a larger war between Muslims and non-Muslims, and calling for retaliation.
Maher said, “ISIS has long held the idea of wanting to provoke the West, not just by provoking governments but also by creating pressure on society so that people are driven toward the extremes.”
He further noted that authorities needed to be vigilant for assaults against Muslims, as the Finsbury Park assailant appeared to have co-opted an Islamic State tactic — using a vehicle to attack civilians.
Base, the senior national coordinator for counterterrorism, praised bystanders who had intervened to detain the suspect.
He too urged residents to remain calm and vigilant.
Basu added, “No matter what the motivation proves to be, and we are keeping an open mind, this is being treated as a terrorist attack and the Counter Terrorism Command is investigating,” adding that more officers had been deployed across London.
Meanwhile, on Monday afternoon, the East London Mosque, which is another major house of worship reported receiving a threatening phone call and police officers and staff members swept the building subsequently.
The mosque said the threat appeared to be a hoax, but it urged vigilance.
Britain has witnessed a series of deadly attacks in London and Manchester in recent months and the anger grew more widespread after a massive fire tore through Grenfell Tower, a 24-story building, killing at least 79 people.
May has come under fierce criticism for her reaction to the Grenfell fire and for her initial failure to meet those wounded there.
According to the office of the mayor of London, in the six days after the terrorist attack at London Bridge and Borough Market on June 3, the Metropolitan Police reported 120 Islamophobic events, compared with 36 the previous week.
It added that hate crimes, in general, had been growing.