Police on Friday shot dead a suspected terrorist on London Bridge in the heart of the UK capital’s financial district after a stabbing incident in which two people were killed and three others injured.
Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, said the attack outside Fishmongers’ Hall at the north end of London Bridge was being treated as a terror incident.
She declined to speculate on the identity of the attacker, his motivation or whether he had been known to the authorities.
The incident, which came less than a fortnight before Britons go to the polls, underlined the growing security risk of UK elections. The Brexit referendum and the last general election were both conducted in the wake of terrorist incidents. The similarities are particularly striking given that London Bridge was also the site of the terror attack that struck just five days before the June 2017 election.
Dame Cressida said police had been called at 1.58pm to reports of stabbing and that officers from the City of London force, which covers the financial district, confronted and killed the attacker five minutes later.
Neil Basu, the Met’s senior counterterror officer, earlier said his officers would lead the investigation into Friday’s events, but emphasised he had “an open mind as to any motive”.
A video of the shooting, apparently filmed from the top deck of a bus stopped on London Bridge, showed multiple passers-by wrestling with a man armed with a knife and one walking away with the weapon. Armed police officers then arrived and, after instructing the bystanders to stand clear, appeared to shoot the man.
Dame Cressida made an appeal for unity, telling Londoners the “empty ideology of terror offers nothing but hatred and today I urge everyone to reject that”.
“Ours is a great city because we embrace each others’ differences,” she said. “We must emerge stronger from this tragedy.”
Boris Johnson, the prime minister, returned to Downing Street from his Uxbridge constituency shortly after being told of the attack.
He said he would suspend his election campaigning for the evening and on Saturday, and convene a meeting of Cobra, the government’s emergency committee, at 9.30pm on Friday.
“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 values, our British values, will prevail.” Mr Johnson also paid tribute to the “bravery” of the emergency services and members of the public who intervened.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the opposition party was “suspending campaigning in London tonight as a mark of respect for those who suffered in this attack”. The Liberal Democrats also suspended a “Stop Brexit” rally planned for Saturday.
The incident comes only weeks after the Home Office downgraded the UK’s terror threat level, which estimates the risk of a terror attack, from “severe” to “substantial”, the first such shift in five years.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London, said the attack highlighted the febrile security situation around UK polls. “With the exception of the European Parliamentary elections, which are somewhat different, the EU referendum and every election for the past three years has taken place in the shadow of a terrorist attack,” he said. The counterterror expert also said Mr Basu’s emphasis on having an “open mind” as to the motive may suggest that the attacker did not have a clear ideology.
Ben Middleton, who was among those evacuated from Fishmongers’ Hall, said people had rushed down steps from the bridge to the river path in panic. “Police officers were pushing people back,” he said. “We had been hearing quite a lot of what sounded like gunfire. A gap of two or three minutes in between. The gunfire was heard at about 2.05pm local time.”
Charlie Bibby, a Financial Times photographer who was in the area, said police river launches were searching the area under the bridge while a bus on the road above had a shattered rear window.
Police sealed off London Bridge and its approaches, including the riverside Thames path and Upper Thames Street, while two police helicopters circled above. Witnesses were being sheltered in the basement of a Salvation Army building at Victoria Street, near the Millennium Bridge, before being debriefed.
A policeman in the City confirmed that “it is a worry” that the incident on the bridge was part of a larger set of planned attacks. He said this was why more than 30 witnesses had been taken into the debrief facility.
Officers were focused on “making sure nothing else happens, nothing else is in the pipeline”, he said.
Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, called the event a “horrendous incident” and that he remained in “close contact” with the Met. He hailed the passers-by who had intervened to help disarm the attacker. “They really are the best of us and another example of the bravery and heroism of ordinary Londoners running towards danger, risking their own personal safety to try to save others,” he said.
Dame Cressida said there would be increased patrols by armed officers over the coming days.
Additional reporting by Karen Crawcour