In London’s Finsbury Park, Alleged Anti-Muslim Attacker Repurposed ISIS Technique

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Vehicle ramming attacks are on the rise, according to analysts, but the attack in Finsbury Park, London, on June 19 was unique because it is believed to have involved a non-Islamist targeting Muslims. Hannah McKay/REUTERS

British officials believe the suspect who carried out the van-ramming attack near a London mosque on Monday holds anti-Muslim and possibly far-right political beliefs.

Vehicle attacks have become popular among followers of the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) and other Islamist extremists and jihadis, but analysts say the incident on Monday is likely the first time an assailant has repurposed the technique to use against Muslims.

Early on Monday, eight people were hospitalized after a van hit pedestrians on Seven Sisters Road in the Finsbury Park section of north London. One person died, but police say it is possible the death was unrelated to the collision. London’s Metropolitan Police described the incident as a terrorist attack. The suspect is believed to have been anti-Muslim and possibly a far-right nationalist—not an Islamist extremist, as has been the case in other recent attacks in the United Kingdom. Police arrested the 47-year-old driver (police at first said he is 48) on allegations related to terrorism.

All of the victims are from the Muslim community, the police said, and the incident occurred near two mosques. “This was quite clearly an attack on Muslims who looked like they were probably Muslims, and they were coming from a prayer meeting,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said in a statement.

In a separate statement, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the attack targeted “British Muslims as they left a mosque, having broken their fast and prayed together at this sacred time of year.” She added, “Like all terrorism, in whatever form, it shares the same fundamental goal—it seeks to drive us apart and to break the precious bonds of solidarity and citizenship that we share in this country.”

Related: London van attack: 1 arrest, multiple casualties

“Certainly, since vehicle attacks like this came into terrorist vogue, this is seemingly the first which was perpetrated by an anti-Muslim extremist,” says Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King’s College London.

Extremists, including those with ties to ISIS, are increasingly turning to vehicle-ramming attacks because they are easier to pull off than other methods and have proved to be effective, according to analysts. In March and June, assailants drove vehicles into crowds in London, killing 11. In April, an assailant in Stockholm killed five with a vehicle.

Last December, an extremist drove a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 11. Last November, a student at Ohio State University who was a Somali refugee drove into a group of pedestrians on campus and then stabbed passers-by, injuring 11. Last July, a Tunisian-born man drove a truck into a crowd during a Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, killing 86 and injuring hundreds.

Vehicle-ramming attacks also occurred in France and Canada in 2014, the United Kingdom in 2013, the Netherlands in 2009 and Scotland in 2007. The United States experienced such attacks in Rochester, New York, in 2009; Minneapolis in 2007; and Sacramento, California, in 2001. Such attacks have occurred in Israel for years, including 58 since September 2015, according to Israeli government figures.

On Monday, hours after the Finsbury Park incident, a driver struck a police van on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Gérard Collomb, French minister of state and minister of the interior, described the incident as a deliberate attack on law enforcement.

Officials did not label all of these incidents terrorism. But none were explicitly anti-Muslim, as the attack on Monday is suspected to have been.

ISIS and other Islamist and jihadi groups have called for people to perpetrate such attacks. In its English-language magazine, Al-Qaeda said in 2013, “The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.”

The following year, an ISIS recruitment video featured someone identified by CNN as “a young Frenchman” saying, “Run over them with your cars.” That same year, an ISIS spokesman said in a speech, “If you are not able to find an [improvised explosive device] or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued a memo in 2010 warning about vehicle threats. “Terrorists overseas have suggested conducting vehicle ramming attacks…against crowds, buildings and other vehicles,” the memo said. “Vehicle ramming offers terrorists with limited access to explosives or weapons an opportunity to conduct a homeland attack with minimal prior training or experience.”

The agencies said people should look for “unusual modifications” on vehicles; large vehicles being purchased, rented or stolen; large trucks or equipment “being operated erratically, at unusual times or in unusual locations”; and vehicles being driven into closed areas “where crowds are gathered, such as for street festivals.”

Several analysts tell Newsweek that the attack on Monday is the first time they have seen someone using the technique that ISIS followers and other extremists have popularized, but against Muslims. Yet a crossover between extremists is not unusual. “There’s a constant sense of replication and innovation when it comes to people perpetrating acts of terrorism,” Winter says. “Groups, even if they are ideologically totally opposite each other, will share a tactic” if it seems successful. He adds, “They look out for things that work, even if they work for their enemy.”

Matthew Feldman, a professor at Teesside University in the U.K. and the co-director of its Center for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies, points out that anarchists committed car bombings before jihadis did. The Tamil Tigers revolutionary group in Sri Lanka carried out some of the earliest suicide attacks, in the 1980s, and people from various ideologies have used chemical weapons. There is “a repurposing, ideologically,” he says.

Feldman also points out that Monday’s attack is unique because the assailant targeted a specific group of people with a vehicle, whereas previous ramming attacks were more indiscriminate.

If the suspect in the Finsbury Park attack, whom media outlets have identified as Darren Osborne, is not a far-right nationalist, the incident could mean that regular citizens are recycling extremist methods in order to become vigilantes, says Todd Stein, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University. 

“People are taking this fight into their own hands, and it shows a level of distrust for governmental efforts to stop these things from happening,” he says. The attack, Stein adds, seems to represent a mindset of “we can do to you what you did to us.”