‘Near-impossible’ to stop London-style attack: Israeli security expert

FILE PHOTO: A man walks next to a newly erected concrete barriers at the entrance to Jabel Mukaber, in an area of the West Bank that Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed to the city of Jerusalem, the morning after a Palestinian rammed his truck into a group of Israeli soldiers on a popular promenade in Jerusalem January 9, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Attacks like the one in London are almost impossible to stop, the former head of VIP protection at Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said on Thursday, acknowledging that even Israel struggled to prevent them.

Despite building a barrier intended to prevent Palestinian attackers protesting against occupation entering from the West Bank, Israel has suffered dozens of low-tech vehicle or knife attacks in the last two years on civilians, police and soldiers.

“What happened in London was basically in a public area and, when it comes to public areas, it’s nearly impossible (to prevent),” said Shlomo Harnoy, who spent 25 years in the Shin Bet, sometimes coordinating protection for U.S. presidential visits. He now directs Sdema Group, a global security consultancy.

“There are ideas to build public areas to counter specific security threats, especially when it comes to explosive materials, but when it’s an attack on a bridge or something like that, it’s very difficult.”

In Wednesday’s attack, the suspect drove his rented vehicle into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before stabbing a policeman at the entrance to the Houses of Parliament. Four people were killed and at least 40 injured. The attacker, identified by police as British-born, was shot dead.

In Israel, Palestinians have rammed cars and trucks into civilians or members of security forces standing in particular at bus stops, tram stations and security posts.

In January, four soldiers were killed and 17 injured when a Palestinian drove his truck at high speed into a group of cadets waiting by the side of the road in Jerusalem.

BLOCKS AND BOLLARDS

Steel bollards have been put up in sensitive areas, and there are now concrete blocks stopping vehicles from approaching tram stops.

But Harnoy said that “you can’t put concrete blocks and barriers everywhere, especially in the center of a city like London. It can’t be like a military installation”.

“To my mind, the best solution for stopping an attack is having people who know how to use arms, including civilians,” he said.

In Israel, police carry guns, it is not uncommon to see armed soldiers on the streets, and many civilians, most of whom have done army service, carry pistols. When attacks occur, video footage often shows civilians drawing weapons at the scene.

“But of course in Britain that is very difficult,” Harnoy said. “Even most police don’t carry weapons. For me, that is one of the mistakes in Britain, not allowing police to have weapons.”

Even in Israel, Harnoy is not convinced that most civilians who carry a weapon are sufficiently trained to handle an attack.

He also noted that Israel allowed its intelligence services more freedom to dig up background information on individuals than Britain, which had to strike more of a balance with privacy and human rights.

“This is a war,” said Harnoy. “When it comes to intelligence, you need 10 to 15 years of information on people, and in doing that you have to think carefully about their rights, about the balance between freedom and security.

“To implement such an intelligence system, you have to make a different balance with democratic rights.”

(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Middle-aged London attacker was criminal who wasn’t seen as threat

Flowers are placed at the scene of an attack on Westminster Bridge, in London, Britain March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Staples

By Michael Holden

BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Before he killed at least four people in Britain’s deadliest attack since the 2005 London bombings, Khalid Masood was considered by intelligence officers to be a criminal who posed little serious threat.

A British-born convert to Islam, Masood had shown up on the periphery of previous terrorism investigations that brought him to the attention of Britain’s MI5 spy agency.

But the 52-year-old was not under investigation when he sped across Westminster Bridge on Wednesday, plowing down pedestrians with a hired car before running into the parliamentary grounds and fatally stabbing an unarmed policeman.

He was shot dead by police.

Although some of those he was involved with included people suspected of being keen to travel to join jihadi groups overseas, Masood “himself never did so”, said a U.S. government source, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Britain’s senior counter-terrorism police officer, Mark Rowley, told reporters: “Our investigation focuses on understanding his motivation, his operation and his associates.”

He added: “Whilst there is still no evidence of further threats, you’ll understand our determination is to find out if either he acted totally alone, inspired perhaps by terrorist propaganda, or if others have encouraged, supported or directed him.”

Islamic State claimed responsibility for Masood’s attack, although it was unclear what links – if any – he had with the militant group. Police said there had been no prior intelligence about his intent to mount an attack.

“An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy,” Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament. “He took out his rage indiscriminately.”

BRITISH-BORN KILLER

Born Adrian Russell Ajao in Kent to the southeast of London on Christmas Day in 1964, he moved though several addresses in England, although he was known to have lived recently in Birmingham in central England.

The Daily Mail newspaper said he was brought up by his single mother in the town of Rye on England’s south coast, later converting to Islam and changing his name. Other media reports said he was a married father of three and a former English teacher who was into bodybuilding.

One soccer team photograph of Masood, taken at school in southern England, showed the future attacker smiling.

Little detail has been given by the British police about the man and what might have led him to carry out Wednesday’s attack, the deadliest in Britain since the London suicide bombings of 2005 by four young British Islamists, which killed 52.

Known by a number of aliases, he racked up a string of convictions, but none for terrorism-related offences. His occupation was unclear.

It was as long ago as November 1983 that he first came to the attention of authorities when he was found guilty of causing criminal damage. His last conviction came 14 years ago in December 2003 for possession of a knife.

He may have taught in Saudi Arabia for four years from 2005 but there was no confirmation of this. A spokesman for the Saudi interior ministry referred Reuters questions to the British authorities.

“Our working assumption is that he was inspired by international terrorism,” said Rowley.

But Masood’s age does not fit the profile of militant attackers, who are typically younger than 30, according to counter-terrorism officers.

Rowley said detectives were questioning nine people in custody, having made two further “significant” arrests in central and northwest England.

Iwona Romek, a former neighbor from Birmingham, told reporters: “When I saw the pictures on TV and in the papers of the man who carried out the attack, I recognized him as the man who used to live next door.

“He had a young child, who I’d think was about 5 or 6 years old. There was a woman living there with him, an Asian woman. He seemed to be quite nice, he would be taking care of his garden and the weeds.”

In December, she said, he suddenly moved out.

BIRMINGHAM CONNECTION

Birmingham has been one of the hotbeds for British Islamists. According to a study by the Henry Jackson think tank earlier this month, 39 of 269 people convicted in Britain of terrorism offences from 1998 to 2015 came from the city.

Among those plots was one to kidnap and behead a British soldier. In December, two men were found guilty of planning to give 3,000 pounds ($3,750) to Brussels bombing suspect Mohamed Abrini – widely known as “the man in the hat”.

There are over 213,000 Muslims in Birmingham, making up over a fifth of the population, according to the 2011 census, and there has been growing concern about divisions in the diverse city.

“It has been disturbing today to learn of the apparent Birmingham connection to this atrocity,” said the Birmingham Faith Leaders Group, made up of representatives of major religions from the city. “We implore people to recognize that such actions are taken by individuals, not by whole communities.”

The car Masood used in Wednesday’s attack had been hired in Birmingham from rental firm Enterprise, suggesting he still had connections to the area.

Since the attack, police have raided a number of addresses across the city, arresting five men and two women on suspicion of preparing terrorist acts.

Masood may have rented an apartment close to the Edgbaston area of the city, not far from the Enterprise offices, and that was one of the properties raided by armed officers.

On the eve of the attack that May cast as an assault on democracy, Masood spent his last night in a budget hotel in Brighton on the south coast, where he ate a takeaway kebab, the Sun newspaper said.

Michael Petersen, a guest who saw him at the hotel reception, said Masood appeared polite and had done nothing to arouse suspicion.

“Nothing in his demeanor or his looks would have given me any thoughts that would make me think he was anything but normal,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington and Reem Shamseddine in Riyadh; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Mark Trevelyan)

UK parliament attacker British-born, had been investigated over extremism concerns

Police work at Carriage Gate outside the Houses of Parliament. REUTERS/Neil Hall

By Elizabeth Piper and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – The attacker who killed three people near the British parliament before being shot dead was British-born and was once investigated by MI5 intelligence agents over concerns about violent extremism, Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement issued by its Amaq news agency. But it gave no name or other details and it was not clear whether the attacker was directly connected to the group.

Police arrested eight people at six locations in London and Birmingham in the investigation into Wednesday’s lone-wolf attack that May said was inspired by a warped Islamist ideology.

About 40 people were injured and 29 remain in hospital, seven in critical condition, after the incident which resembled Islamic State-inspired attacks in France and Germany where vehicles were driven into crowds.

The assailant sped across Westminster Bridge in a car, ploughing into pedestrians along the way, then ran through the gates of the nearby parliament building and fatally stabbed an unarmed policeman before being shot dead. http://tmsnrt.rs/2napbkD

“What I can confirm is that the man was British-born and that some years ago he was once investigated by MI5 in relation to concerns about violent extremism,” May said in a statement to parliament.

“He was a peripheral figure…He was not part of the current intelligence picture. There was no prior intelligence of his intent or of the plot,” she said, adding that his identity would be revealed when the investigation allowed.

The mayhem in London took came on the first anniversary of attacks that killed 32 people in Brussels. Twelve people were killed in Berlin in December when a truck ploughed into a Christmas market and 84 died in July in a similar attack on Nice waterfront for which Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Islamic State, which is being driven from large areas of Iraq and Syria by local forces supported by a U.S.-led military coalition, said it was responsible for the London attack.

“The perpetrator of the attacks…is an Islamic State soldier and he carried out the operation in response to calls to target citizens of the coalition,” a statement on its Amaq agency said.

Westminster Bridge and the area just around parliament were still cordoned off on Thursday morning and a line of forensic investigators in light blue overalls were on their hands and knees, examining the scene where the attacker was shot.

The dead were two members of the public, the stabbed policeman and the attacker.

“My thoughts, prayers, and deepest sympathy are with all those who have been affected by yesterday’s awful violence,” Queen Elizabeth said in a message.

Britain’s plan to trigger the formal process of exiting the EU on March 29 will not be delayed due to the attack, May’s spokesman said.

Flowers are left outside New Scotland Yard the morning after an attack in London, Britain, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

“TOOK OUT HIS RAGE”

It was the worst such attack in Britain since 2005, when 52 people were killed by Islamist suicide bombers on London’s public transport system. Police had given the death toll as five but revised it down to four on Thursday.

The casualties included 12 Britons, three French children, two Romanians, four South Koreans, one German, one Pole, one Chinese, one American and two Greeks, May said.

“We meet here, in the oldest of all parliaments, because we know that democracy and the values it entails will always prevail,” she said.

“A terrorist came to the place where people of all nationalities and cultures gather what it means to be free and he took out his rage indiscriminately against innocent men, women and children,” said May.

A minute’s silence was held in parliament and in front of police headquarters at New Scotland Yard at 0933 GMT, in honor of the victims — 933 was the shoulder number on the uniform of Keith Palmer, the policeman who was stabbed to death.

May was in parliament on Wednesday, a short distance away from the spot where the attacker was shot. She was swiftly whisked away as the chaos erupted, according to lawmaker Andrew Bridgen, who was nearby at the time.

A government minister was widely praised for trying to resuscitate Palmer, walking away from the scene with blood on his hands and face.

A crowdfunding page hastily set up to raise money for Palmer’s family attracted close to 20,000 pounds ($25,000)within three hours.

Some have been shocked that the attacker was able to cause such mayhem in the heart of the capital equipped with nothing more sophisticated than a hired car and a knife.

“The police and agencies that we rely on for our security have forestalled a large number of these attacks in recent years, over a dozen last year,” said defense minister Michael Fallon.

“This kind of attack, this lone-wolf attack, using things from daily life, a vehicle, a knife, are much more difficult to forestall,” he told the BBC.

Police officers salute during a minute's silence outside New Scotland Yard. REUTERS/Neil Hall

Police officers salute during a minute’s silence outside New Scotland Yard. REUTERS/Neil Hall

SOLIDARITY

Three French high-school students aged 15 or 16, who were on a school trip to London with fellow students from Brittany, were among the injured.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who traveled to London to bring a message of solidarity, met some of the other students who were on the school trip and their families at a hotel near the hospital where the injured were being treated.

He told reporters the lives of the three youngsters were not in danger. Ayrault later attended the session in parliament where May spoke. France has been hit by repeated deadly Islamist attacks over the past two years.

A vigil was planned in London’s Trafalgar Square at 6 P.M.

Anti-immigration groups were quick to make links between immigration and the attack, though it was subsequently revealed the attacker was British-born.

Leave.EU, a group that has campaigned for immigration to be severely restrained as part of Britain’s exit from the European Union, accused mainstream politicians of facilitating acts of terror by failing to secure borders.

In France, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen also drew a link, saying that events in London highlighted the importance of protecting national borders and stepping up security measures.

(Additional reporting by Costas Pitas, Kate Holton, Estelle Shirbon and Elisabeth O’Leary, writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Ralph Boulton)

Security tightened at UK sites in New York after London attack

A New York City Police (NYPD) Counter Terrorism officer patrols in Times Square in New York City, U.S., March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

By Laila Kearney

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York police ramped up security at British sites across the city on Wednesday after an assailant fatally stabbed a policeman outside Britain’s parliament and was then shot and killed by police.

Heavily armed officers and explosives-detecting dogs were deployed to locations including the British Consulate and the British Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan, senior New York Police Department officials told a news conference.

“You’ll see a larger presence of the dogs at these locations, as well as (officers) armed with the long guns,” said James Waters, the police department’s counterterrorism chief.

Police Commissioner James O’Neill said that while authorities were concerned about copycat attacks, there was no specific threat to New York City on Wednesday.

Outside the British Consulate, officers stood guard wearing helmets and tactical vests and carrying semi-automatic rifles. Several police cars were parked nearby, their lights flashing.

Police long-gun teams were also deployed to New York’s City Hall and Grand Central Station, the department said.

Four people died and at least 20 were injured in London after a car plowed into pedestrians and an attacker stabbed a policeman close to parliament in what police called a “marauding terrorist attack.”

New York police previously boosted security at prominent sites around the city after large-scale attacks in Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino, California, out of an abundance of caution.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said it would lend support to Britain’s investigation of the attack but that the U.S. security posture was unchanged.

“We are in close contact with our British counterparts to monitor the tragic events and to support the ongoing investigation,” the department said in a statement.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Additional reporting by Timothy Ahmann in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

Four dead, others injured in UK parliament ‘terrorist’ attack

An air ambulance lands in Parliament Square during an incident on Westminster Bridge in London. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

By Toby Melville and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Four people were killed and at least 20 injured in London on Wednesday after a car plowed into pedestrians and an attacker stabbed a policeman close to the British parliament, in what police called a terrorist incident.

The dead included the assailant and the policeman he stabbed, while the other two victims were among the pedestrians hit by the car as it tore along Westminster Bridge, which is right next to parliament.

“We’ve declared this as a terrorist incident and the counter-terrorism command are carrying out a full-scale investigation into the events today,” Mark Rowley, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, told reporters.

“The attack started when a car was driven over Westminster Bridge, hitting and injuring a number of members of the public, also including three police officers on their way back from a commendation ceremony.

“A car then crashed near to parliament and at least one man, armed with a knife continued the attack and tried to enter parliament.”

Reuters reporters who were inside parliament at the time heard loud bangs and shortly afterwards saw the knifeman and the stabbed policeman lying on the ground in a courtyard just outside, within the gated perimeter of the parliamentary estate.

A Reuters photographer said he saw at least a dozen people injured on the bridge. His photographs showed people lying on the ground, some of them bleeding heavily and one under a bus.

A woman was pulled alive, but with serious injuries, from the Thames, the Port of London Authority said. The circumstances of her fall into the river were unclear.

Three French schoolchildren aged 15 or 16 were among those injured in the attack, French officials said.

The attack took place on the first anniversary of attacks by Islamist militants that killed 32 people in Brussels.

PARLIAMENT SESSION SUSPENDED

“I just saw a car go out of control and just go into pedestrians on the bridge,” eyewitness Bernadette Kerrigan told Sky News. She was on a tour bus on the bridge at the time.

“As we were going across the bridge, we saw people lying on the floor, they were obviously injured. I saw about 10 people maybe. And then the emergency services started to arrive. Everyone was just running everywhere.”

The House of Commons, which was in session at the time, was immediately suspended and lawmakers were asked to stay inside.

Prime Minister Theresa May was safe after the incident, a spokesman for her office said. He declined to say where May was when the attack took place.

Journalist Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail newspaper told LBC radio that he had witnessed the stabbing of the policeman and the shooting of the assailant from his office in the parliament building.

“He (the assailant) ran in through the open gates … He set about one of the policemen with what looked like a stick,” Letts said.

“The policeman fell over on the ground and it was quite horrible to watch and then having done that, he disengaged and ran towards the House of Commons entrance used by MPs (members of parliament) and got about 20 yards or so when two plain-clothed guys with guns shot him.”

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe” meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

In May 2013, two British Islamists stabbed to death soldier Lee Rigby on a street in southeast London.

In July 2005, four British Islamists killed 52 commuters and themselves in suicide bombings on the British capital’s transport system in what was London’s worst peacetime attack.

(Additional reporting by Kylie Maclellan, Elizabeth Piper, Costas Pitas, Alistair Smout, Michael Holden, Kate Holton, Elisabeth O’Leary and London bureau, writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Stephen Addison, Mark Trevelyan and Guy Faulconbridge)

One shot, several injured in UK parliament ‘terrorist incident’

Police tapes off Parliament Square after reports of loud bangs, in London, Britain, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

By Toby Melville

LONDON (Reuters) – A policeman was stabbed, an assailant shot and several people injured on Wednesday close to Britain’s Houses of Parliament in what police said they were treating as a terrorist incident.

Reuters reporters inside the building heard loud bangs and shortly afterwards a Reuters photographer said he saw at least a dozen people injured on Westminster Bridge, next to parliament.

His photographs showed people lying on the ground, some of them bleeding heavily and one apparently under a bus. The number of casualties was unclear.

“Officers – including firearms officers – remain on the scene and we are treating this as a terrorist incident until we know otherwise,” London’s Metropolitan Police said in a statement.

The House of Commons, which was in session at the time, was immediately suspended and lawmakers were asked to stay inside.

Prime Minister Theresa May was safe after the incident, a spokesman for her office said. He declined to say where May was when the attack took place.

The leader of the House, David Lidington, said in the chamber that an assailant who stabbed a policeman had been shot by police.

An ambulance helicopter landed on Parliament Square, just outside the building.

The BBC said police believed there was a suspect vehicle outside parliament but police did not immediately confirm that report.

Amid confusing scenes, it appeared the incident may have unfolded in several locations, including on the busy Westminster bridge where tourists take pictures of Big Ben and other attractions.

Reuters reporters inside parliament said a large number of armed police, some carrying shields, were pouring into the building.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House he had been briefed on events in London but gave no details.

The incident took place on the first anniversary of attacks on Brussels in Belgium.

Britain is on its second-highest alert level of “severe” meaning an attack by militants is considered highly likely.

In May 2013, two British Islamists stabbed to death soldier Lee Rigby on a street in southeast London.

In July 2005, four British Islamists killed 52 commuters and themselves in suicide bombings on the British capital’s transport system in what was London’s worst peacetime attack.

(Additional reporting by William James, Kylie Maclellan, Elizabeth Piper and UK bureau, writing by Estelle Shirbon, editing by Stephen Addison)

Man shot dead after seizing soldier’s gun at Paris Orly airport

Repeating correcting date - Police at Orly airport southern terminal after a shooting incident near Paris, France March 18, 2017. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Gus Trompiz and Emmanuel Jarry

PARIS (Reuters) – Security forces shot dead a man who seized a soldier’s gun at Paris Orly airport in France on Saturday soon after the same man shot and wounded a police officer during a routine police check, the interior minister said.

The man was known to police and intelligence services, Interior Minister Bruno le Roux told reporters. A police source described him as a radicalized Muslim but did not identify him by name.

The anti-terrorism prosecutor opened an investigation.

The busy Orly airport south of Paris was evacuated and security forces swept the area for bombs to make sure the dead man was not wearing an explosive belt, but nothing was found, interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet told Reuters.

“The man succeeded in seizing the weapon of a soldier. He was quickly neutralized by the security forces,” Brandet said.

Noone else was injured at the airport.

Flights were suspended from both terminals of the airport and some flights were diverted to Charles de Gaulle airport north of the capital, airport operator ADP said.

Earlier, a police officer was shot and wounded by the same man during a routine traffic check in Stains, north of Paris.

The incidents came five weeks before France holds presidential elections in which national security is a key issue.

The country remains on high alert after attacks by Islamic State militants killed scores of people in the last two years -including coordinated bombings and shootings in Paris in November 2015 in which 130 people were killed. A state of emergency is in place until at least the end of July.

The attacks would have no impact on a trip to Paris by Prince William, second-in-line to the British throne, and his wife Kate, who are due to end a two-day visit to the French capital on Saturday, a British spokesman said.

The soldier whose gun the man tried to seize was a member of the army’s “Sentinelle” operation responsible for patrolling airports and other key sites since January 2015 when Islamist attackers killed 12 people at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo. It was reinforced after the Paris attacks.

Around 3,000 passengers were evacuated from the airport, the second busiest in the country.

In March 2016, Islamic State claimed responsibility for suicide bomb attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital which killed 35 people, including three suicide bombers.

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz, Emmanuel Jarry, Brian Love, Bate Felix, Simon Carraud; Writing by Adrian Croft; editing by Richard Balmforth)

Letter bomb at IMF’s Paris office injures employee

Police outside the International Monetary Fund (IMF) offices where an envelope exploded in Paris, France, March 16, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – A female employee of the International Monetary Fund was injured in the face and arms on Thursday when a letter bomb posted to the world lender’s Paris office blew up as she opened it, police said.

The explosion was caused by a homemade device, said the head of the French capital’s police force.

“It was something that was fairly homemade,” police chief Michel Cadot told reporters.

Cadot said there had been some recent telephone threats but it was not clear if these were linked to the incident at the IMF’s offices.

A police source said the woman who opened the letter suffered burns on her face and arms but her life was not in danger.

Separately, at least two people were injured in a shooting at a high school in the small southern French town of Grasse, a police source said.

France, which is in the middle of a presidential campaign ahead of elections in six weeks time, has been hit by attacks by Islamist groups in the last few years that have killed scores of people and the country is still in a state of emergency with army units patrolling the streets of Paris.

A militant Greek group, Conspiracy of Fire Cells, claimed responsibility for a parcel bomb mailed to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble on Wednesday, but there was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Paris bomb.

The IMF has been involved in discussions between Greece and its international creditors on disbursing new loans to Athens under a bailout program.

President Francois Hollande said French authorities would do all they could to find those responsible.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde condemned the explosion as “a cowardly act of violence.”

“I … reaffirm the IMF’s resolve to continue our work in line with our mandate. We are working closely with the French authorities to investigate this incident and ensure the safety of our staff,” she said.

(Reporting by Sophie Louet and Bate Felix; Writing by Adrian Croft and John Irish; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

At least 40 killed in Damascus bombing targeting Shi’ites

Syrian army soldiers and civilians inspect the damage at the site of an attack by two suicide bombers in Damascus, Syria March 11, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A double bomb attack targeting Shi’ite pilgrims in Damascus killed at least 40 Iraqis and wounded 120 more who were going to pray at a nearby shrine, the Iraqi foreign ministry said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Saturday’s attack, which the Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV station said had been carried out by two suicide bombers.

Footage broadcast by Syrian state TV showed two badly damaged buses with their windows blown out. The area was splattered with blood and shoes were scattered on the ground.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been supported in the country’s war by Shi’ite militias from countries including Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon.

The attack took place at a bus station where the pilgrims had been brought to visit the nearby Bab al-Saghir cemetery, named after one of the seven gates of the Old City of Damascus.

The second blast went off some 10 minutes after the first, inflicting casualties on civil defence workers who had gathered to tend to the casualties, the Damascus correspondent for al-Manar told the station by phone.

The pilgrims were due to pray at the cemetery after visiting the Sayeda Zeinab shrine just outside Damascus, he said.

Sayeda Zeinab – the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad – is venerated by Shi’ites and her shrine is a site of mass pilgrimage for Shi’ites from across the world. It has also been a magnet for Shi’ite militiamen in Syria.

Iran has backed Assad in the conflict that erupted in 2011.

Last June, Islamic State claimed responsibility for bomb attacks near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine.

The Lebanese group Hezbollah is also fighting in support of Assad.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra and Alexander Smith)

UK terrorism reinsurance fund hopes to include cyber: CEO

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s 6 billion pounds ($7.3 billion) terrorism reinsurance fund hopes to extend its cover to include cyber attacks on property, chief executive Julian Enoizi said.

Pool Re, set up in 1993, acts as a backstop to insurers paying out claims on property damage and business interruption.

It is financed by the insurance industry with government backing, and pay outs depend on the British government deeming an attack to be terror-related, Enoizi said.

In 2002, Pool Re extended its cover to include chemical and biological attacks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

There have been several cyber attacks on property in recent years. In 2014, a German steel mill suffered damage to the plant’s network from a cyber attack.

Enoizi told Reuters that this and other incidents had been ruled out as terror attacks, but Pool Re needed to be prepared.

“Insurance is there for the unimaginable – we’re here to insure the unforeseen,” he said.

The fund has held discussions with the government and industry, and it hopes to add cyber to its coverage in the next few months, he added.

Enoizi said any increase in the premium costs to businesses for adding this cover would be accompanied by discounts for implementing government-approved cyber security policies.

The U.S. cyber insurance market is likely to have totalled about $3.25 billion in premiums in 2016, according to market survey The Betterley Report. The European market is seen as one-tenth of that, but demand has been increasing, insurers say.

Demand is expected to spike after EU legislation on data privacy is implemented by mid-2018. This will require companies to notify authorities of data breaches likely to harm individuals, similar to U.S. arrangements.

But most cyber policies relate to data loss, rather than attacks on property.

“We see this as a gap in the cover,” Enoizi said.

Cyber attacks on property worry businesses and insurers. These include an attack at some apartment buildings in Finland last year which knocked out the heating system when it was below freezing outside. This attack was not deemed an act of terror.

Insurers have said the source of a cyber attack is hard to prove, and most policies pay out regardless of the cause.

Pool Re’s cover would be limited to terror-related cyber attacks, once the British government assessed it to be an act of terrorism, Enoizi said.

(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Edmund Blair)