Britain raised its national security threat level to critical from severe on Friday (September 15), meaning an attack is imminent, after a bomb on a London commuter train injured 30 people.
Prime Minister Theresa May said in a televised statement that armed police and members of the military would be seen on the streets in the coming days.
“For this period, military personnel will replace police officers on guard duties at certain protected sites which are not accessible to the public,” she said.
Anti-terror police are chasing down the suspects behind the bomb, the country’s most senior counter-terrorism officer said.
Mark Rowley said officers were sifting through surveillance footage and examining the remains of the device.
The home-made bomb failed to fully detonate on a packed rush-hour commuter train in southwest London but engulfed a carriage in flames injuring commuters on Friday (15 September) in what police said was UK’s fifth terrorism incident this year.
Passengers on board the train heading into the capital fled in panic as the fire erupted at Parsons Green underground station near Fulham at 8.20 a.m. (0720 GMT).
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Some suffered burns while others were injured in a stampede to escape. The National Health Service said 29 people had been taken to London hospitals, most of the casualties described as suffering flash burns. None were thought to be in a serious condition, the ambulance service said.
Earlier Met Police Commissioner Neil Basu, the senior national coordinator for counter-terrorism policing, had declared the explosion a terrorist incident. Rowley later told reporters: “We now assess that this was a detonation of an improvised explosive device.”
Police said officers were making urgent inquiries involving hundreds of detectives backed by the intelligence services to find out who was responsible.
Rowley declined to say if the suspected bomber had been on the train, saying it was a live investigation.
Unverified pictures taken at the scene and widely circulated on social media showed a slightly-charred white bucket with a Lidl supermarket freezer bag on the floor of one train carriage. The bucket, still intact, was in flames and there appeared to be wires coming out of the opening.
“I was on second carriage from the back. I just heard a kind of whoosh. I looked up and saw the whole carriage engulfed in flames making its way toward me,” Ola Fayankinnu, who was on the train, told Reuters.
“There were phones, hats, bags all over the place and when I looked back I saw a bag with flames.”
Another witness Charlie Craven said he had just got on the train when the device exploded.
“Literally within three seconds of putting your bag down, the doors just closing, we hear a loud explosion,” he told Reuters. “I looked around and saw this massive fireball … coming down the carriage.”
He said terrified passengers fled, fearing a second explosion or a gunman, with people being knocked to the ground and crushed in the ensuing stampede as they tried to escape.
Outside the station, a woman was carried off on a stretcher with her legs covered in a foil blanket while others were led away swathed in bandages.
In 2005, 52 people were killed when four British Islamists carried out suicide bomb attacks on three London underground trains and a bus and this year Britain has suffered four attacks which killed a total of 36 people.
May returned to London to chair a meeting of Britain’s COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A) emergency response committee later on Friday.
“My thoughts are with those injured at Parsons Green and the emergency services who, once again, are responding swiftly and bravely to a suspected terrorist incident,” the PM said.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said people should “keep calm” and continue their lives as normal.
“Another attack in London by a loser terrorist,” U.S. President Donald Trump said on Twitter. “These are sick and demented people who were in the sights of Scotland Yard. Must be proactive!”
Counter terrorism officers have not said anything about who could be behind the attack.
However, a US law enforcement official and a US intelligence source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the attack might well have been carried out in response to recent Islamic State video messages urging would-be militants to attack trains and other public transport.
The officials said the device “doesn’t look very professionally built” and said its rudimentary design suggested the attack was carried out by someone inspired by Islamic State propaganda rather than by a well-trained cell.
UK security services believe those behind some of the militant incidents in Britain this year had probably been acting alone and likely radicalised by online material.
In March this year, a man drove a car into pedestrians on London’s Westminster Bridge killing four, before he stabbed a policeman to death outside parliament.
A further 22 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a pop concert in Manchester in May and the following month three Islamist militants drove into pedestrians on London Bridge before stabbing people at nearby restaurants and bars, killing eight.
In June, a van was driven into worshippers near a mosque in north London which left one man dead.
Recent figures showed there had been a record number of terrorism-related arrests in the last year and earlier this week Rowley said there had been a shift-change in the threat.
In the three years until March this year, police foiled 13 potential attacks but in the next 17 weeks, there were the four attacks while the authorities thwarted six others, Rowley said.
London mayor Sadiq Khan later told the LBC radio station that a police manhunt was underway after the improvised explosive device went off. He urged commuters not to be worried about heavy armed police patrols at transport hubs and around the city: “I want to appeal to Londoners when you see enhanced police presence, don’t be alarmed, they are there to keep us safe.”
(With additional reporting from Reuters)