Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 July 2019

Communities seek answers as London Bridge inquest unveils “chilling” footage of the attack

In Barking, the community of two of the three assailants grapples with the deadly aftermath

Simon (C) and Mila McMullan, parents of victim James McMullan, arrive for the opening day of the inquest into the London Bridge terror attack on May 7, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images
Simon (C) and Mila McMullan, parents of victim James McMullan, arrive for the opening day of the inquest into the London Bridge terror attack on May 7, 2019 in London, England. Getty Images

The inquest into the London Bridge attack, which killed eight people and injured dozens as attackers mowed down pedestrians with a van and went on a rampage armed with knives on June 3, 2017, has heard of the lasting impact on those connected to the attack.

At London’s Old Bailey criminal court – a few blocks from the bridge – the relatives of the victims gave painful accounts of the loss of loved ones. Christine Delcros told the hearing on Thursday how she “still loved” her boyfriend Xavier Thomas, the first fatality in the attack. Ms Delcros said the couple were on a sight-seeing weekend but that she had premonitions of an attack before going to the area. She recalled her thoughts when the van mounted the pavement, killing her boyfriend and injuring her. “I just heard myself say to myself, that’s how one dies, that’s it,” she said.

The families also watched in horror as the first details of the carnage begun to emerge. CCTV footage showed one of the attackers, Khuram Shazad Butt, 27, wiping the knife in his beard after rinsing it, in a gesture described by the counsel for the coroner as “chilling.” The last victim, Ignacio Echeverria, 39, was seen swinging his skateboard at the knife-waving attackers as he ran in to help two unarmed officers around Borough Market.

The inquest, which begun on Tuesday and is expected to last up to three months, heard from the police officers who kept firing at the wounded attackers as they laid on the ground, in fear they would detonate the fake explosive suicide vests they were carrying. Butt was later identified as the mastermind of the plot and a known supporter of Anjem Choudary, who was released this week after spending five years in prison for supporting ISIS.

Among the matters awaiting clarification is how Butt was able to organise the plot while under investigation by security services. Gareth Patterson, a counsel representing some of the victims, also questioned a senior officer about why no barriers were put in place on London Bridge after a similar attack on Westminster in March 2017.

In the East London neighbourhood of Barking, the community where two of the three attackers originated from was also looking for answers.

Butt hung out with friends in Barking’s Ummah Fitness Center, taught children to play ping-pong, invited his neighbours over for barbecues. He went by the name Abu Zaitun, or “Abz”, and wore a conservative Muslim garb on top of tracksuit and sneakers.

While some saw him as a devoted Muslim, others had caught the signs of his progressive radicalisation. Shortly after the attack, a neighbour claimed she had reported him to police two years prior, after he began “brainwashing” her children at a local park.

His activities came into the public eye after his brief appearance in a documentary about radical Islamists in London, entitled “The Jihadis Next Door,” with friend Abu Rumaysah, who travelled to Syria to become one of ISIS’s main English-language propagandists.

While Butt was on the radar of Britain’s domestic security service (MI5), he was able to recruit two accomplices – Rachid Redouane, 30, and Youssef Zaghba, 22 – and to rent a van to carry out the attack.

Ashfaq Siddique, secretary of Barking’s al-Madina mosque, still asks himself what the Muslim community could have done more to prevent the bloodshed. He told The National three separate complaints were filed to the police, but Butt was assessed as not posing a threat.

Mr Siddique said his community is “caught in the middle”. “We suffer [from the problem of extremism] like all other communities, but when something happens we get the blame,” he said.

Mr Siddique said journalists descended upon the neighbourhood in the aftermath of the attack, asking why moderate Muslims hadn’t done more. But when he asked the authorities what they could have done differently, they had no answer.

As someone who spent 30 years as an officer in London’s Metropolitan police, he argued that authorities are “talking to the wrong people” and failing to see mosques as equal partners in the fight against radicalisation. The inquest, he said, must result in a change of mind set and stronger collaboration.

Barking’s al-Madina was one of the first to receive Beacon Mosque Accreditation for its provision of services catering the poor and outreach programmes, as well as world class sports facilities for the youth.

A few weeks ago, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the Christian community in Sri Lanka, the mosque hosted a dinner in solidarity with the neighbourhood’s Sri Lankan residents.

The relatives of Shahara Islam, a 20-year-old girl who was killed in the Aldgate bus bombing attack in 2005, are also part of the congregation.

Al-Madina now sits between two types of hate. Extremist preacher Choudari is one of the “sneak-heads”, as Mr Siddique calls them, the community needs to guard against.

The hate preacher was released from prison this week and authorities believe his proscribed group, al-Muhajiroun, exists under various guises.

At the same time, the far-right is ratcheting up consent, emboldened by the presence of extremist preachers. Barking, which forms a borough with the predominantly white neighbourhood of Dagenham, elected 12 councillors from the British National Party in 2010, becoming the constituency with the highest number of far-right representatives (over 17 per cent). Numbers are dropping as the area is undergoing a large decrease in white British population, but tensions remain high.

“We have been talking about the threat from the far-right for a long time, and now you are beginning to see it,” Mr Siddique said, referring to the attacks carried out by extremists – the latest of which killed 50 people in Christchurch.

“The vast majority of the non-Muslim people are educated, sensible human beings and are not influenced by this extremist [right-wing] rhetoric,” Mr Siddique said. “But there are some who want to project their own issues onto somebody else.”

Over 24,000 people are expected at the mosque for Eid al-Fitr, a religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide that marks the end of Ramadan, up from the customary 4,000 Fridays. Security measures will have to be put in place to guarantee the safety of worshippers caught in the middle of the battle between extremes, Mr Siddique said, before reminiscing about the days in which the doors could be kept open.

“Those days are now gone,” he said.

Updated: May 9, 2019 06:13 PM

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