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.
At least seven people were killed and dozens more wounded, including 21 who remained in critical condition, as the men sped across London Bridge in a white van, ramming numerous pedestrians, before emerging with large hunting knives for a rampage in the capital’s Borough Market, a crowded nightspot.
In a matter of minutes, the three assailants were chased down by eight armed officers who fired about 50 rounds, killing the men, who wore what appeared to be suicide vests but subsequently proved to be fake. One member of the public also suffered nonfatal gunshot wounds, police said.
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 — out of respect for 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 afterward, she said the government would intensify its counterterrorism efforts to deal with Islamist radicalism at home and to try to restrict “the safe spaces it needs to breed,” both on the internet and in British communities.
“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.”
May said 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 she called “a perversion of Islam,” adding, “There is, to be frank, far too much tolerance of extremism in our country.”
May, who was home secretary for six years before becoming prime minister, has been pressing for a tougher line against Islamist extremism for some time. By stating that police and security measures were insufficient, she was announcing a new effort, if re-elected, to break down what she considers to be essentially self-segregated communities and to be less delicate of their sensitivities.
Legally, she has been stymied by the difficulty of finding a definition of “extremism” that would hold up in court when challenged on the grounds of free speech.
A good example of the difficulty is the case of Anjem Choudary, who spent nearly two decades preaching jihad and radicalizing youth. While some of his organizations were banned, Choudary, a lawyer, managed to avoid breaking the law while being credited for helping to recruit hundreds of British Muslims to fight for al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Choudary was convicted in 2016 of inviting support for a terrorist organization — the Islamic State — when film emerged of him pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. He was sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
May also 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.
While none of the assailants in Saturday’s attack 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 authorities before Saturday.
A resident of the neighborhood on King’s Road in Barking, where an apartment was raided Sunday, said that he knew the man who lived in the apartment with his wife and two young children, and said his neighbor looked to be in his mid-20s and was known in the community by his nickname, “Abs.”
“He would always be in a religious gown to his shins, with tracksuit bottoms and trainers underneath,” the resident, Ken Chigbo, 26, said about his neighbor, with whom he played table tennis. “I trusted him, we got on.”
Chigbo added that a group of three to four men would visit his neighbor’s apartment every week or so. “I found them quite intimidating, actually,” he said. “They were always in religious robes and wearing red-and-white checkered scarves wrapped around their heads.”
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 Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, to be narrowing.
Corbyn 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.”
Using different methods, the pollsters are divided about the extent of the Conservative lead, but they all show the gap with Labour shrinking, making the landslide May hoped for unlikely and even, for at least one polling company, raising the possibility of a hung Parliament.
It is too early to say how this latest attack will affect the vote, if at all. In general, crises tend to help the incumbent. However, May did not seem to receive much of a poll bounce after the Manchester attack, partly because of some campaign mistakes. And as the former home secretary, she might receive some blame for perceived security failings.
Campaigning had already been suspended once, after the Manchester attack. That happened while May was on the defensive, after having to change her position on home care policy announced just days earlier in her party’s manifesto.
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.”
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.”
The mood in London veered from shock to anger in the aftermath of the attack.
Expressions of support poured in from Europe, the United States and beyond. In a media communiqué, President Emmanuel Macron of France expressed solidarity with the British people and described the attack as “horrendous and cowardly.”
“French citizens are among the victims,” he added. “France is doing everything it can to provide them with assistance.” As none of the victims were immediately identified, it was not clear if any were French citizens.
In a statement, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said that a Canadian citizen was among those killed in the attack.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia said citizens of his nation were among the injured.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said, “We are united beyond all borders in horror and sorrow, but also in determination.”
President Donald Trump said on Twitter, “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the UK, we will be there — WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
But then the president took aim at political correctness and Khan. “We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people,” he posted. “If we don’t get smart it will only get worse.”
Trump then accused the London mayor, inaccurately, of saying there was nothing for Londoners to be concerned about. “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” Trump wrote.
In fact, Khan wrote in a statement about the need to remain “calm and vigilant,” and was speaking about the enlarged police presence in the capital when he said there was no reason to be alarmed.