Amid Heroism in London, Gnawing Fear of a Simmering Terrorism Threat

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LONDON — It was midafternoon when Mike Finnerty, who sells cheese at his Borough Market shop just south of London Bridge, realized that something was wrong. An unusual flow of people had suddenly gathered in front of his stall, he said, and they seemed “alarmed.”

What he did not know was that a man dressed in black and armed with knives had gone on a murderous rampage in a grand meeting venue called Fishmongers’ Hall on the opposite side of the bridge, just north of the Thames River. But Mr. Finnerty sensed the danger on Friday, he would later tell the BBC and write on Twitter.

So he and another employee rushed some customers — a couple from Vancouver and a young American man — into a cheese refrigerator and locked the door. Then he called the police.

The “operator said it was an attack and not to move,” he wrote. He said he could hear shouting outside the door, but he and the group huddled together in “pretty close quarters.”

Susan Vinn, 57, was smoking outside her office adjacent to Fishmongers’ Hall about 2 p.m. when she saw people running over the bridge. And Craig Heathcote, a filmmaker, was walking there when, he told the British broadcaster Sky News, someone said:

“Get out of the way. Someone’s got a knife.”

On Saturday, Britain grappled with the aftermath of another terrorist attack in the heart of London just as the Islamic State claimed responsibility. Two people were killed and at least three were wounded in Friday’s assault.

In a statement, ISIS said the assailant had carried out the attack in its name and added that he had done so “in response to calls to target coalition countries.” The phrasing indicates that the attacker was inspired by the group’s ideology and refers to a speech by a former spokesman, who urged followers to carry out attacks in any way they could, including stabbing.

This attack, the police said, had been carried out by a man wearing a fake bomb vest, a former prisoner who had been convicted of terrorism offenses in 2012. The authorities identified the suspect as Usman Khan, 28, of Stafford, England, who was released from prison last year, apparently after agreeing to wear an electronic tag.

He was part of a gang that plotted in 2010 to plant explosives in the toilets of the London Stock Exchange, the authorities said, and possibly attack other British landmarks and prominent figures like Boris Johnson, then the mayor of London.

The assailant was wrestled to the ground in the street outside the grand hall. A man wearing a suit and tie can be seen removing a knife and walking away from the suspect. He was later identified as an off-duty member of the transport police.

Thomas Gray, a tour company manager, told reporters that he saw one of the knives taped to Mr. Khan’s hands.

“I stamped on his left wrist while someone else smacked his hand on the ground and then kicked one of the knives away,” Mr. Gray told Sky News. “I went to pick up the knife when I heard a cop say, ‘He has got a bomb.’”

The bomb turned out to be fake. Footage showed officers, guns drawn, pulling bystanders off Mr. Khan. Then, Mr. Khan was shot and killed by the police.

The trauma of the encounter, which played out as workers looked down from huge office windows and as onlookers shared video of the chaos, led Ms. Vinn to ask: “Why London Bridge anyway? It’s horrible, I don’t get it.”

She said that for a country that has experienced terrorist attack after terrorist attack since 2017: “It’s become ambient. It makes you worried about your safety on a day-to-day basis, especially here, around London Bridge.”

Mayor Sadiq Khan of London praised the bravery of bystanders. “What’s remarkable about the images we’ve seen,” he said, “is the breathtaking heroism of members of the public who literally ran toward danger, not knowing what confronted them.”

The assault threw into stark relief the risks in attempting to rehabilitate those convicted or suspected of terrorism.

On Saturday, Chris Phillips, a former head of the country’s National Counter Terrorism Security Office, said Britain was releasing people while they were still radicalized.

“We’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives, letting convicted, known, radicalized jihadi criminals walk about our streets,” he told the Press Association news agency.

David Videcette, a former antiterrorism detective and author, added that Britain must “look at sentencing and rehabilitation, as we have a huge problem with terrorist prisoners that are being released, and with those that want to come back from Syria.”

Usman Khan was attending an event at Fishmongers’ Hall for former prisoners and their mentors in a prison education program, Learning Together, set up by Cambridge University. He was believed to have been invited to share his experiences as a former prisoner.


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