London mosque attack suspect held on terror charges: U.K. police

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LONDON—The family of the man suspected of ramming a van into Muslim worshippers offered public condolences Tuesday in statements that sought outreach but gave little hint of possible motives behind the latest terrorist strike in London.

British media identified the suspect as Darren Osborne from the Welsh city of Cardiff. He was arrested on suspicion of the commission, preparation or instigation of terrorism including murder and attempted murder.

Osborne was heard by witnesses saying he wanted to kill Muslims. But few other details have emerged on what caused Osborne to drive 257 kilometres from Wales and point his van at crowds outside north two London mosques Monday following late-night prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.

At least 11 people were injured before Osborne was wrestled to the ground and arrested. One man died, but it remained unclear whether he was killed in the attack or had collapsed moments before in the Finsbury Park district.

Osbourne’s mother Christine, 72, told the Sun’s newspaper that her son had mental health problems—which she did not detail—but had never expressed any political concerns.

“My son is no terrorist. He’s just a man with mental issues and I don’t know how to cope with all this,” she was quoted as saying. “As a mum my heart goes out to everyone in Finsbury Park.”

“We are massively shocked. It’s unbelievable. It still hasn’t really sunk in,” said Osborne’s nephew, Ellis, in a statement on behalf of the family.

“We are devastated for the families, our hearts go out to the people who have been injured. It’s madness. It is obviously sheer madness,” he said.

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But other neighbours, who did not want to be named, told British newspapers that Osborne was known for heavy drinking and a temper.

One of Osborne’s neighbours in Cardiff, Khadijh Sherazi, told the Guardian newspaper she had never had any problems with Osborne or his family until this weekend. Sherazi said her son, Nadeem, 12, said Osborne came up to him while he was on his bike and called him an “inbred.”

Police were searching an address where Osborne was said to be living before the attack. British media reported that there was no evidence Osborne belonged to any far-right organization and said he was not known to the security services.

“At this stage in the investigation, it is believed that the suspect acted alone but we are of course investigating all the circumstances leading up to the attack,” the Metropolitan police said in a statement. “All the victims were from the Muslim community and we will be deploying extra police patrols to reassure the public, especially those observing Ramadan.”

Osborne, who was not any security watch lists, is believed to have rented a white van local to his home in Cardiff. Late Monday in London, hundreds joined a peace vigil, some carrying placards that read “United Against All Terror.”

The attack may have took authorities by surprise, but the act capped a growing dread in London’s Muslim community.

Fears have been growing among Muslims here that they could be singled out by extremists in tit-for-tat attacks because of other attacks carried out in the name of Islam, even though they are widely denounced by the mainstream Muslim community.

“There is something rather depressingly inevitable about this,” said Fiyaz Mughal, founder of Tell Mama, a group that tracks anti-Muslim incidents. “Mosques are a visible target, even more so during Ramadan when more Muslims are visible because they wear religious clothing.”

He said that there almost always a spike in hate crime against Muslims after Islamist-inspired attacks. He said the week before the attack in Manchester, his group received 25 reports of anti-hate crime. The week after, it shot up to 141.

“The cases are coming in thick and fast,” he said.

Writing in Tuesday’s Guardian newspaper, Britain’s Home Secretary Amber Rudd challenged criticism that Monday’s terrorist attack was not given the same kind of attention as Britain’s three other recent attacks.

“I have been saddened to see suggestions that this cowardly crime is not being dealt with in the same way as the Westminster Bridge, Manchester or London Bridge attacks. Let there be no doubt this attack is every bit as horrifying as the others we have seen. Our grief is no less raw,” she wrote.

“The threat from the far right is as corrosive as the twisted Islamist ideologies so many Muslims have spoken out against,” she said.

This was the third attack in London this year involving vehicles, and it came a month after a suicide bombing in Manchester killed 23 people and injured more than 100.

“We don’t feel safe anywhere,” said a young man who gave his name as Adil Rana. “We don’t feel safe walking the streets or going to the mosque.”

Finsbury Park was for years considered to be a hotbed of Islamist extremism. A relatively deprived immigrant neighbourhood in north London, it is the home of the Finsbury Park Mosque—once notorious for housing the radical Egyptian cleric known as Abu Hamza al-Masri, who was later extradited to the United States and found guilty of terrorism charges.

But like many of its surrounding neighbourhoods, the area has rapidly gentrified in recent years, arguably becoming more diverse and tolerant at the same time. Kebab shops sit comfortably next to cafes serving flat white espressos. Finsbury Park Mosque has undergone its own dramatic reforms, too, with its extremist edges stripped away.

For the past decade, the mosque has sought to emphasize, according to its website, the “true teachings of Islam as a religion of tolerance, co-operation and peaceful harmony among all people who lead a life of balance, justice and mutual respect.”

In 2014, the mosque won a prestigious award for its services to the community. But its past links to extremism have made it—and its neighbourhood—a target for criticism from Britain’s far right.

Even before this attack, Muslims said they had seen a sharp rise in hate crimes, here and elsewhere in Britain.

“Over the past weeks and months, Muslims have endured many incidents of Islamophobia, and this is the most violent manifestation to date,” Harun Khan, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, said in a statement.

Rana, who witnessed the incident, said the attacker taunted onlookers as he was arrested.

“He said, ‘I’d do it again,’” Rana said. “It was a premeditated attack. He picked this area well, and he knows Finsbury Park is predominantly a Muslim area.”

Fearing copycat attacks, many Muslims urged extra security for mosques and other sites. East London Mosque, one of the city’s largest, said it was evacuated Monday after receiving a fake bomb threat.

On Monday, British Prime Minister Theresa May met with members of the Muslim community even as they denounced a rising climate of anti-Islamic sentiment. Her response contrasted with her handling of a deadly fire in London last week, when she was widely criticized for not meeting survivors on the first day of the disaster.

May described Monday’s attack as “every bit as sickening” as those that have come before. She also hailed the “bravery” of those who detained the driver at the scene.

“Hatred and evil of this kind will never succeed,” she said.

Sadiq Khan, London’s first Muslim mayor, called the incident a “horrific terrorist attack” that was “clearly a deliberate attack on innocent Londoners, many of whom were finishing prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.”

“While this appears to be an attack on a particular community, like the terrible attacks in Manchester, Westminster and London Bridge, it is also an assault on all our shared values of tolerance, freedom and respect,” he said in a statement.

With files from the Associated Press