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London mosque attack the latest in string of setbacks rocking Britain's stability

Police officers attend to the scene after a vehicle collided with pedestrians near a mosque.

Neil Hall/Reuters

Britain is facing a string of setbacks that have rocked the country's stability and left it grappling with an increased terrorism threat, an unstable government and rising concerns about Brexit.

The latest crisis to hit the country came early Monday morning when a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims who had just left a mosque in London after praying. One elderly man died and 11 were injured in the incident which had chilling accounts from witnesses who said the attacker laughed and shouted: "You Muslims deserve this."

It was the fourth terrorist attack in the last four months and the third in London involving men slamming vans into pedestrians. And it came as the city is still recovering from a fire at the Grenfell Tower social-housing complex in west London last Wednesday, which has killed at least 79 people and called into question the actions of civic leaders who ignored repeated concerns about the building's safety for years.

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London mosque attack: What we know so far about the Finsbury Park terrorism incident

In photos: Van rams Muslim worshippers leaving London mosque

As people across the U.K. struggled to comprehend the latest terror strike, many of those living near the mosque decried the lack of national leadership and wondered why their country was lurching from crisis to crisis.

"People are scared," said Ferhat Laichoui as he stood next to the Finsbury Mosque, one of two in the north London neighbourhood where the attack occurred. "We need to protect people. I'm not talking about just Muslims. I'm not talking about religion. I'm talking about human beings. We need to protect them."

Added Shiraz Kothia, who lives in the area: "There's a serious concern about leadership in this country. That's not helping the current situation."

The latest attack happened in the final days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month when devotees fast during the day, and pray and eat at night. A group had just left the Muslim Welfare House shortly after midnight when they stopped on the sidewalk to help an elderly worshipper who had taken ill. That's when a man suddenly drove his van toward them at a high speed.

The mosque's imam, Mohammed Mahmoud, rushed outside. He saw bodies still under the van and heard the screams from those who had been hit. The driver had taken a wrong turn into a dead end after plowing into the people and had to stop the vehicle. As he tried to jump out and run, a group of young Muslim men from the mosque surrounded him.

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"He seemed calm. I just heard, he said 'I did my bit,' " Imam Mahmoud recalled. He waded into the crowd and held back the young men, urging them not to retaliate. "I just told people there's no point hurting him, we'll let the police deal with him and the courts deal with him," he said.

The elderly man died and police aren't sure if his death was directly a result of the attack. They have charged a 47-year-old man with attempted murder and terrorism offences. Media reports say he is Darren Osborne, a father of four from Cardiff.

For Prime Minister Theresa May, the assault on the worshippers is yet another challenge to her leadership. She's still recovering from a disastrous election campaign in which she vowed to win a thumping majority to back her strategy for Brexit, only to end up reducing her Conservatives to a minority in the House of Commons. The result not only left her vulnerable to a leadership challenge, it also undermined her plans for a hard Brexit, which included cutting nearly all ties to the European Union.

There were indications last week that Ms. May might make a comeback. She had rallied her caucus behind her and seemed poised to strike a deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists to form a minority government. But those plans have now been derailed by Monday's terror attack and last week's deadly fire at Grenfell.

Ms. May has been sharply criticized for her handling of the response to the Grenfell fire, which has also opened difficult questions of race, class and income inequality. She was seen as uncaring and faced scathing criticism over her government's cuts to welfare spending and social housing. She hasn't fared much better on terrorism, having to defend her record as interior minister when she slashed the number of police officers by 20,000. Monday's attack offered another reminder of her troubles on both fronts. Brexit, too, has suddenly become more difficult for Ms. May now that her Tory majority is gone and negotiations with the European Union are under way in Brussels. Opponents of her strategy have been emboldened and they've promised to challenge her hard Brexit approach.

By Monday afternoon, she was trying to show more compassion and hands-on leadership. She didn't hesitate to call the attack terrorism despite some initial reticence by the police. And she quickly met with a group of religious leaders at the Finsbury Mosque, which is near where the attack occurred, to commiserate and promise action on terrorism.

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"This morning, our country woke to news of another terrorist attack on the streets of our capital city: the second this month and every bit as sickening as those which have come before," she said outside 10 Downing St. "Today we come together – as we have done before – to condemn this act and to state once again that hatred and evil of this kind will never succeed."

While she drew some jeers from the crowd as she entered the mosque, others gave her credit. "I'm certainly not a May fan in any way but her dealing on this particular incident was pro-active," said Sharmarke Jama, who lives near the mosque and watched as the Prime Minister met the religious leaders on Monday. "She did call it a terrorist attack, she did call [a meeting of her security team] and it was a marked improvement to her attitude and her response to the Grenfell Tower fire."

But others in the neighbourhood were still trying to understand how British society had become so bitter and hateful. Mr. Jama said when the young men grabbed the driver some of them asked him why he did this. "His response was 'You Muslims deserve this.'"

Another witness, a man named Athmane who declined to give his first name, watched the van run over several people and he tried to help some of the badly injured people. The driver "was happy, smiling, giving victory signs," he recalled. "He was enjoying what he'd done."

Imam Mahmoud couldn't comprehend the violence and hatred either, but as he stood in the blazing sun on Monday afternoon, he spoke about unity and told a story about his neighbours. "It was actually touching, my neighbours woke us up this morning just to give us their support and to say that they're there for us, our non-Muslim neighbours," he said. "So it's proof that the fabric of this society is not torn."

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