LONDON – Two people were killed in a terrorist knife attack in the heart of London on Friday, disrupting the U.K.’s general election campaign two weeks before the vote.
Police were called shortly before 2 p.m. on Friday to reports of a stabbing in the London Bridge area, on the edge of the city’s main financial district. Within five minutes, officers were on the scene, and streets in the zone were locked down.
Members of the public wrestled with the attacker before armed police arrived and shot him dead. According to a security source, the suspect was recently released from prison on terrorism offences. Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier appeared to indicate the person had a criminal record, saying “it is a mistake to allow serious and violent criminals to come out of prison early.”
Johnson broke away from campaigning to rush back to Downing Street for a security briefing on the attack, which killed two and left three other civilians hospitalized with injuries. Speaking afterward, he praised the civilians who tried to stop the suspected terrorist before police arrived, and declared that “Britain will not be cowed” by the incident.
With voters set to go to the polls on Dec. 12, the impact of such a potentially disruptive event is unclear. But the revelation that the attacker was a former convicted terrorist is likely to put pressure on the Conservatives – who traditionally view crime prevention as one of their stronger cards – to explain why the person was allowed out of jail.
Campaigning in the U.K.’s last election in 2017 was thrown off course by two terrorist attacks, including one in the same area of London just five days before the vote. In that incident, eight people were killed and 48 injured.
In the wake of the 2017 attack, Donald Trump triggered a diplomatic row when he criticized London Mayor Sadiq Khan over his response, and their spat has continued ever since. The U.S. president arrives in the U.K. next week for a NATO summit, which Johnson hopes will be a low-key visit.
On Friday, Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn spoke by phone and each suspended their election campaigns in the capital for the rest of the day. Johnson’s team said he would also cancel his events on Saturday so he can focus on the security response.
But, speaking to television reporters just before a meeting of the government’s ‘Cobra’ crisis committee on Friday evening, Johnson highlighted his election pledge to hire extra police officers.
Police are trying to establish whether the terrorist was a so-called lone wolf or had been working as part of a cell. Johnson said he believed the incident had been contained now the suspected attacker was dead.
“Anybody involved in this crime and these attacks will be hunted down and will be brought to justice,” he said. “This country will never be cowed or divided or intimidated by this sort of attack and our British values will prevail.”
After the alarm was raised on Friday lunchtime, armed police cleared cafes and shops in the London Bridge area. Officers burst into restaurants in the popular Borough Market area on the other side of the river, urging diners to leave immediately. They shouted “Out, out, out,” to people at the Black and Blue bar, and ordered customers to walk away with their hands on their heads. Nearby, police shouted to pedestrians to “run.”
Two-and-a-half hours after the incident, police declared they were treating the attack as a terrorist incident and said they believed the suspect was wearing a hoax suicide bomb vest. Security will be stepped up in the capital over the weekend, with more armed police on patrol.
“Counter Terrorism detectives will be working round the clock to identify those who have lost their lives, to support all the victims and their families,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said. “We are also working at full-tilt to understand exactly what has happened and whether anyone else was involved.”