By Steven Erlanger
LONDON – Declaring “enough is enough,” Prime Minister Theresa May vowed Sunday a sweeping review of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy after three knife-wielding assailants unleashed an assault late Saturday, the third major terrorist attack in the country in three months.
Seven people were killed and dozens more injured as the men sped across London Bridge in a white van, ramming numerous pedestrians, before emerging with large hunting knives for a stabbing spree in the capital’s Borough Market, a crowded night spot. In a matter of minutes, the three assailants were chased down and killed by police.
The assault came days before national elections this week and after the British government had downgraded the threat level to “severe” from “critical,” meaning that an attack was highly likely, but not imminent.
On Sunday morning, May’s Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party announced they were suspending campaigning for parliamentary elections – less than a full day in the case of Labour – as a mark of respect to the victims. However the right-wing, populist, U.K. Independence Party said it would continue with its scheduled campaign events.
But May said the election would go ahead on Thursday as planned.
The prime minister led an emergency meeting of her security Cabinet on Sunday morning. In a statement after the session, she said the government would ramp up its counterterrorism efforts to deal with Islamist radicalism at home and to try to reduce or eliminate “the safe spaces it needs to breed,” both on the internet and in British communities, in which she said radical recruiters work.
“Everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would,” she said. “Our society should continue to function in accordance with our values. But when it comes to taking on extremism and terrorism, things need to change.”
The government may extend the time of custodial sentences for terrorism suspects, but more needed to be done in binding communities together to combat what May called “a perversion of Islam,” adding: “There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.”
She called for a global effort to “regulate cyberspace,” something that is likely to prove difficult, and said that the London attack was not connected to a suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester, England, last month that killed 22 people.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, issued his own strong condemnation of the attacks. “We are all shocked and horrified by the brutal attacks in London,” he said in a statement. “My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who have died and the many who have been injured. Today, we will all grieve for their loss.”
While none of the attackers were identified, counterterrorism police conducted a raid Sunday in Barking, in east London, in connection with the assault and made 12 arrests. Searches there continued, police said, suggesting that they had identified at least one assailant.
Britain’s home secretary, Amber Rudd, said Sunday that the government was confident the attackers were “radical Islamist terrorists.” Speaking on ITV television, Rudd said, “As the prime minister said, we are confident about the fact that they were radical Islamist terrorists, the way they were inspired, and we need to find out more about where this radicalization came from.”
She refused to say whether the attackers had been known to the authorities before Saturday.
The attack took place at a sensitive moment politically, days before the general election and at a time when several opinion polls have shown May’s lead over Corbyn to be narrowing.
Mayor Sadiq Khan of London said police had been dispersed across the city, as security would remain heightened throughout the week.
Khan, who described the assault as a “deliberate and cowardly attack on innocent Londoners,” said that some of the injured were in critical condition, raising the possibility that the death toll could rise. “We will never let these cowards win and we will never be cowed by terrorism,” he said.
The Muslim Council of Britain also condemned the attack and praised the emergency services.
“Muslims everywhere are outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons,” said the council’s secretary-general, Harun Khan. “That this should happen in this month of Ramadan, when many Muslims were praying and fasting only goes to show that these people respect neither life nor faith.”
The attack began shortly after 10 p.m. Saturday, in what quickly became a terrifying night in Central London, as the sirens of police cruisers and ambulances wailed into early morning.
Police got their first emergency call at 10:08 p.m. and within eight minutes had killed the three assailants, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, said Sunday morning.
It was a remarkably rapid response that was bound to have saved many lives. As it was, in addition to the seven fatalities, the National Health Service said later Sunday that 21 of the injured were in critical condition.
Witnesses and police officers described a white van roaring across London Bridge, jumping over the curb and plowing over shrieking pedestrians. The van eventually crashed into a railing, and three men jumped out of the vehicle and ran into the bars and restaurants at Borough Market. The attackers, who had a machete and large knives, began slashing at patrons, witnesses said.
Heavily armed police officers responded to the bridge attack, and more officers rushed to investigate reports of stabbings at the market. Police shot and killed the attackers there. The three men were wearing what appeared to be canisters or suicide vests, but they were fake, police said.
“Last night saw another appalling and tragic incident in London, something we hoped we would not see again,” Dick said. She called on the public to remain calm and vigilant, and said that many people had risked their own safety to help others and to confront the attackers.
Though there has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, it hit a nation still recovering from the shock of the bombing in Manchester almost two weeks ago, when a suicide bomber blew himself up outside the doors of an Ariana Grande concert. Many of those killed were children, and 116 people were injured.
Grande was to return to Manchester with a star-powered lineup Sunday night to perform in a charity concert and pay tribute to the victims.
Saturday’s attack was reminiscent of another on Westminster Bridge on March 22, when Khalid Masood, 52, drove a car into pedestrians, killing four people. He then stabbed a police officer to death before being shot and killed near Parliament. Police treated that attack, in which 50 were injured, as “Islamist-related terrorism.”