Britain raises terror level to 'critical' following subway blast

by: JILL LAWLESS and GREGORY KATZ, Associated Press Updated:

LONDON - British officials have raised the country's terrorism threat level to "critical' — meaning another attack is expected shortly.

Prime Minister Theresa May acted on the recommendation of the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center after the subway train bombing attack Friday hurt 29 people at the Parsons Green station in southwest London. The analysis includes security services, police and government agencies.

 

The threat was raised from "severe" to "critical" — its highest possible level.

The Islamic State group also claimed that the London subway explosion was carried out by an affiliated unit.

The claim was posted Friday on channels affiliated with the extremist group.

The bomb went off around 8:20 a.m. as the train, carrying commuters from the suburbs - including many school children - was at Parsons Green station in the southwest of the city.

Witness Chris Wildish told Sky News that he saw "out of the corner of my eye, a massive flash of flames that went up the side of the train," followed by "an acrid chemical smell."

Commuter Lauren Hubbard said she was on the train when she heard a loud bang.

"I looked around and this wall of fire was just coming toward us," Hubbard said. She said her instinct was "just run," and she fled the above-ground station with her boyfriend.

[MINUTE-BY-MINUTE updates on London subway attack]

Chaos ensued as hundreds of people, some of them suffering burns, poured from the train, which can hold up to 800 people.

"I ended up squashed on the staircase. People were falling over, people fainting, crying. There were little kids clinging onto the back of me," said another commuter, Ryan Barnett.

Passenger Luke Walmsley said it was "like every man for himself to get down the stairs."

"People were just pushing," he added. "There were nannies or mums asking where their children were."

Police and health officials said 29 people were treated in London hospitals, most of them for flash burns. None of the injuries were serious or life-threatening, the emergency services said.

Trains were suspended along a stretch of the Underground's District Line, and several homes were evacuated as police set up a 50-meter (150-foot) cordon around the scene while they secured the device and launched a search for those who planted it.

The Metropolitan Police said hundreds of detectives, along with agents of the domestic spy agency MI5, were looking at surveillance camera footage, carrying out forensic work and speaking to witnesses.

Among questions they were rushing to answer: What was the device made from, and was it meant to go off when it did, in a leafy, affluent part of the city far from London's top tourist sites?

British media reported that the bomb included a timer. Lewis Herrington, a terrorism expert at Loughborough University, said that would set it apart from suicide attacks like those on the London subway in 2005 or at Manchester Arena in May, in which the attackers "all wanted to die."

Photos taken inside the train showed a white plastic bucket inside a foil-lined shopping bag, with flames and what appeared to be wires emerging from the top.

Terrorism analyst Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish Defense University said that from the photos it appeared the bomb did not fully detonate, as much of the device and its casing remained intact.

"They were really lucky with this one, it could have really become much worse," he said.

Hunter, the explosives expert, said it appeared that "there was a bang, a bit of a flash, and that would suggest that, potentially, some of the explosive detonated, the detonator detonated, but much of the explosive was effectively inert."

Police and ambulances were on the scene within minutes of the blast, a testament to their experience at responding to violent attacks in London. The city has been a target for decades: from Irish Republican Army bombers, right-wing extremists and, more recently, attackers inspired by al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.

In its recent Inspire magazine, al-Qaida urged supporters to target trains.

Britain has seen four other terrorist attacks this year, which killed a total of 36 people. The other attacks in London - near Parliament, on London Bridge and near a mosque in Finsbury Park in north London - used vehicles and knives. Similar methods have been used in attacks across Europe, including in Nice, Stockholm, Berlin and Barcelona.

In contrast Friday's attack involved the "detonation of an improvised explosive device," said Mark Rowley, head of counterterrorism for the Metropolitan Police.

British authorities say they have foiled 19 plots since the middle of 2013, six of them since the van and knife attack on Westminster Bridge and Parliament in March, which killed five people. Police and MI5 say that at any given time they are running about 500 counterterrorism investigations involving 3,000 individuals.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said there had been a "shift" in the terrorism threat, with attackers using a wide range of methods to try to inflict carnage. Khan, who belongs to the opposition Labour Party, said London police needed more resources to fight the threat. Police budgets have been cut since 2010 by Britain's Conservative government.

The London Underground, which handles 5 million journeys a day, has been targeted several times in the past. In July 2005, suicide bombers blew themselves up on three subway trains and a bus, killing 52 people and themselves. Four more bombers tried a similar attack two weeks later, but their devices failed to fully explode.

Last year Damon Smith, a student with an interest in weapons and Islamic extremism, left a knapsack filled with explosives and ball bearings on a London subway train. It failed to explode.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on Friday's attack, tweeting that it was carried out "by a loser terrorist," and adding that "these are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard."

 

 

 

 

The British prime minister gently rebuked the president for his tweets.

"I never think it's helpful for anybody to speculate on what is an ongoing investigation," May said.

Read more top trending stories on wsoctv.com:

Next Up: