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Worse terror attack on London Bridge foiled by chance, police say

The Guardian logo The Guardian 10/06/2017 Vikram Dodd Police and crime correspondent
A white van used in the attack on London Bridge. But for chance it could have been a much larger lorry. © AFP/Getty Images A white van used in the attack on London Bridge. But for chance it could have been a much larger lorry.

The three terrorists who struck London Bridge last Saturday tried to hire a 7.5-tonne lorry on the morning of the attack to kill even more people and inflict an even bigger atrocity on Britain.

Police revealed the attempt to rent the lorry was made hours before they staged the attack, with the trio instead using a rented van to run people over, and then going on a stabbing rampage, killing eight and wounding 48.

The van was hired by the ringleader, named by police as Khuram Butt. Police believe the intended atrocity was on a similar scale to that in Nice, France, in August 2016 when a truck drove into a crowd and left 86 people dead.

The attempted truck hire failed only by chance, because Butt failed to provide payment details. Instead they hired a Renault van from a firm in Harrold Hill, Romford, in east London.

Commander Dean Haydon, of Scotland Yard’s counter-terrorism command, said: “Concerningly, Butt had earlier attempted to hire a 7.5-tonne lorry that same morning. When he did not provide payment details, the rental did not go ahead. The effects could have been even worse.”

Scotland Yard gave their fullest detail yet of the attack last Saturday, the third to strike Britain in three months, amid debate about tougher measures, impacting on civil liberties, to protect the United Kingdom against an unprecedented terrorism threat.

The attackersdrove to London Bridge at 9.58pm. They drove up and down twice as a practice run, or by way of reconnaissance, before U-turning and then mowing down people in the van, driven by Butt. Three people were killed there, with one, French tourist Xavier Thomas, knocked into the river Thames as he walked with his girlfriend on a summer evening.

The trio then took knives they had bought, tied to their wrists with leather straps. All three had the same type of pink 12-inch kitchen knife with a ceramic blade. After crashing their hired van into railings, they first went off on their own to attack people, then regrouped to rampage through Borough market.

They had wrapped water bottles in grey tape to look like a suicide belt, strung around their upper bodies. As they set upon a young man passing by, armed police rushed towards the terrorists to save him. The police opened fire and killed the attackers in a hail of 46 bullets. At least two officers came under direct attack from the jihadis.

Butt, 27, Rachid Redouane, 30, and Youssef Zaghba, 22, were all killed by police. One passerby was shot in the head by a police bullet.

CCTV shows London Bridge attackers meeting days before atrocity

Three people died after being hit by the van and five were stabbed to death in the attack led by Butt.

In the van police found 13 wine bottles containing flammable liquid with rags stuffed in them, essentially Molotov cocktails, and blow torches to ignite them, potentially meant for another wave of attacks. There were also bags of gravel, chairs and a suitcase meant to hide their murderous intent if the rental company or friends asked why they had hired a van.

The counter-terrorism command believes an east London flat rented since April by Redouane was the safe house where they prepared their attack. Detectives recovered craft knives from the flat used to cut the leather straps attached to the knives, lighter fluid used in the petrol bombs and other materials linking it directly to the attack.

Butt had been investigated by MI5 in 2015 but slipped off their radar after they found no evidence of attack planning or any crime. He was an acolyte of Anjem Choudary, an extremist cleric whose groups were believed by security officials to be a gateway to terrorism, with MI5 assessing that 500 people linked to them went on to commit terrorist acts.

Five people remain in custody as detectives and MI5 investigate if anyone assisted the London Bridge terrorists or had knowledge of their plans in any shape or form. Haydon said there was no evidence of direction from overseas for the attack and that forensics from the van and safe house tie only the three dead terrorists to the actual attack.

Haydon said he expected more arrests and searches as the inquiry continued against a backdrop of unprecedented attack planning and terrorist threat level.

Haydon said his teams were working flat out: “We also need to watch out for those who may be inspired by these recent attacks.” He asked firms to report people they are suspicious of who are trying to hire vehicles or trucks for “no particular reason”.

The terror chief said the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was a trigger factor for the upsurge, and it ends in just over a fortnight.

The van used was booked out at 5.50pm on the evening of the attack, using a recently activated mobile phone bought by Butt, and was due to be returned at 10am the next morning.

It was picked up at 6.30pm and by 7.17pm it arrived at a Barking address used by Zaghba.

At 7.38pm the attackers left the address and drove from east London to just south of the centre of the capital.

By 9.58pm they drove north to south across London Bridge in the first of the two reconnaissance runs, and then started the attack. The first 999 call to police was at 10.08pm, with police having shot them dead eight minutes later.

At the time of the attack, Butt was on bail for a non-terrorist offence, of trying to defraud a bank. Police said the CPS has decided they would not prosecute him. He also had two cautions, one in 2008 for fraud, and one in 2010 for assault. The other two had no criminal record in the UK and inquiries found none in countries they had links to. In Zaghba’s case that was Italy where he lived and Morocco, in Redouane ’s case that was Ireland as well as Morocco and Libya.

Extra protection against vehicle attacks are now being put on eight London bridges including at Westminster, Waterloo, Lambeth, Tower Bridge, Blackfriars and Vauxhall. Urgent security reviews are being carried out for all events, including summer music festivals.

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