A man imprisoned around six years for terrorism offences before his release last year stabbed several people in London on Friday, two fatally, before being tackled by members of the public and then shot dead by officers on London Bridge.
Neil Basu, London’s police counterterrorism head, said 28-year-old Usman Khan was attending a programme that works to educate prisoners when he launched the attack, killing a man and a woman and injuring three others just metres from the site of a deadly 2017 van and knife rampage. Basu said the suspect appeared to be wearing a bomb vest but it turned out to be “a hoax explosive device”.
Health officials said that one of the injured was in critical but stable condition, one was stable and the third had less serious injuries.
The attack raises difficult questions for Britain’s government and security services. The police said Khan was convicted in 2012 of terrorism offences and released in December 2018 “on licence”, which means he had to meet certain conditions or face recall to prison. Several British media outlets reported that he was wearing an electronic ankle bracelet.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he had “long argued” that it was a “mistake to allow serious and violent criminals to come out of prison early”.
“It is very important that we get out of that habit and that we enforce the appropriate sentences for dangerous criminals, especially for terrorists, that I think the public will want to see,” he said.
Johnson, who chaired a meeting of the government’s Cobra emergency committee late on Friday, said more police would be patrolling the streets in the coming days “for reassurance purposes”. The police said they were treating the stabbings as a terrorist attack and were not actively looking for any other suspects.
The violence erupted less than two weeks before Britain holds a national election on December 12. The main political parties temporarily suspended campaigning in London as a mark of respect.
Metropolitan police chief Cressida Dick said officers were called just before 2pm to Fishmongers’ Hall, a conference venue at the north end of London Bridge. The pedestrian and vehicle bridge links the city’s business district with the south bank of the Thames river.
Learning Together, a Cambridge University-backed prison education programme, was holding a conference there on Friday. Cambridge vice-chancellor Stephen Toope said he was “devastated to learn that today’s hateful attack on London Bridge may have been targeted at staff, students and alumni attending an event organised by the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Criminology.”
Minutes after the stabbings, witnesses saw a man with a knife being wrestled to the ground by members of the public on the bridge before officers shot him dead.
Footage showed people spraying the fleeing suspect with a fire extinguisher, while another passer-by held what appeared to be a long white stick. Witness Amy Coop, who was at the Fishmongers’ Hall, said it was a narwhal tusk the man had grabbed from a wall before going to confront the attacker.
One video posted on social media showed two men struggling on the bridge before the police pulled a man in civilian clothes off a black-clad man on the ground. Gunshots followed. Another depicted a man in suit and overcoat holding a long knife that apparently had been taken from the attacker.
Karen Bosch, who was on a bus crossing the bridge, said she saw the police “wrestling with one tall, bearded man” and then heard “gunshots, two loud pops”.
She said the man “pulled his coat back which showed that he had some sort of vest underneath, whether it’s a stab vest, or some sort of explosive vest, the police then really quickly moved backwards, away”.
Another bus passenger, Amanda Hunter, told the BBC that the vehicle “all of a sudden stopped and there was commotion and I looked out of the window and I just saw these three police officers going over to a man”.
“It seemed like there was something in his hand, I’m not 100% sure, but then one of the police officers shot him.”
The police confirmed that the man died at the scene.
Mayor Sadiq Khan praised the “breathtaking heroism of members of the public who literally ran towards danger not knowing what confronted him”.
“They are the best of us,” Khan said.
Cars and buses on the busy bridge stood abandoned after the shooting, with a white truck stopped diagonally across the lanes. Footage showed the police pointing guns at the truck before moving to check its container.
London Bridge station, one of the city’s busiest rail hubs, was closed for several hours after the attack.
Scores of policemen, some armed with submachine guns, ushered office workers and tourists out of the area packed with office buildings, banks, restaurants and bars. Staff in nearby office blocks were told to stay inside.
As the police cleared the streets, staff in shops and restaurants ushered customers into storerooms and basements. Some had been through similar traumatic events in June 2017, when eight people died in the van and knife attack launched by three people inspired by the Islamic State. The attackers ran down people on the bridge, killing two, before fatally stabbing several people in nearby Borough Market.
Political leaders expressed shock and sorrow at Friday’s attack.
“We will not be cowed by those who threaten us,” Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said. “We must and we will stand together to reject hatred and division.”
Both Labour and the Conservatives suspended campaigning in the city after the attack and the Prime Minister was also cancelling political events for Saturday.
Security officials earlier this month downgraded Britain’s terrorism threat level from “severe” to “substantial”, which means an attack is seen as “likely” rather than “highly likely”. The assessment was made by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, an independent expert body that evaluates intelligence, terrorist capability and intentions.
The UK’s terror threat was last listed as “substantial” in August 2014; since then, it has held steady at “severe”, briefly rising to “critical” in May and September 2017.