News Brief: Vehicle Hits London Pedestrians; Syria Military Jet Downed

Jun 19, 2017
Originally published on June 19, 2017 8:44 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're following news this morning of what London police say is another terrorist attack in that city.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Right. This time, a van plowed into Muslim worshipers after they had left late-night services at a mosque in north London. One man is dead. Though, we should say, it is not clear that he is a direct victim of the attack. Another eight people are in the hospital. As for who may have carried this out, this is what deputy assistant police commissioner - the deputy assistant police commissioner in London said earlier this morning.

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NEIL BASU: Also at the scene, detained by members of that community, was the man suspected of being the driver during this attack. He has been arrested on suspicion of attempted murder.

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt is on the scene this morning. Frank, these headlines are coming so frequently now for people who live in London - these van attacks, in particular. What are you hearing from witnesses who saw this?

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Well, as David was saying - hi, good morning, Rachel. As David was saying, a van went plowing down the sidewalk, actually just a block from where I'm sitting here in north London. It's near the Finsbury Park Mosque. And people had just gotten out from prayers, apparently, in the area. Our producer, Russell Newlove, he actually got here early, was speaking to a neighbor - a guy named Abdullahi, (ph). He's 18 years old, a student. He had just left the Finsbury Park Mosque. And he came upon the scene. Here's what he said.

ABDULLAHI: A man on the floor, they tried to resuscitate him. I saw people crying. I saw a man, he's bleeding from his head. He'd definitely been hit - very, very, very, very bizarre scenes.

MARTIN: So authorities caught the driver. Do we know, at this point, anything about this man, Frank?

LANGFITT: We don't. They're not - they're not saying anything specifically about him. But I was talking to a bunch of witnesses, and somebody showed me a videotape of a cellphone video of the man being arrested by police and put in - put in a van. He looks like a big, burly white guy - appeared to be middle age. We don't know much more than that. Now, this Abdullahi who was speaking with us earlier, he saw the man inside the van. And this was his impression of the guy he saw.

ABDULLAHI: He looked indifferent. He looked like he didn't really care as to what he'd done. He was just sitting in the van, didn't care.

MARTIN: And we should say again, this attack came just as people were finishing up prayers. So people were milling about outside this mosque. What are authorities saying at this point? How are they characterizing this?

LANGFITT: They're calling it a terror attack. There's no discussion of motive. They see it - if you read their press releases, they do see it - they suspect it's an attempt to divide London, frankly. The London Met Police commissioner, Cressida Dick, she said London is a city of many faiths and many nationalities. And an attack on one community is an attack on all of us. Terrorists will not succeed in their attempt to divide us and make us live in fear.

MARTIN: Have you been able to talk to more people who just live in the area in this community?

LANGFITT: Oh, yeah, a lot. And there's a lot of anger. They don't want to speculate because we don't know anything about this guy. But their concern is this is retaliation for all the attacks that have been coming really in the last three months or so. We had the attack on the Westminster Bridge, the Manchester attack, the bombing outside the Ariana Grande concert and the London Bridge attack. And people here, of course, feel this is totally unfair, that they're innocent worshippers. They're not behind this, and they're also scared. I spoke to a woman who'd moved here 13 years ago from Somalia, Mogadishu. She left to leave civil war, to be safe. And she says now, living in London, she's really frightened and doesn't want to go back to the mosque.

MARTIN: And it's also just worth reminding people that the most targets, most victims of attacks by ISIS and groups related to ISIS are Muslims, as we have seen today. NPR's Frank Langfitt at the scene of this most recent attack in London. Thanks so much, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Rachel.

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MARTIN: We're going to turn now to Syria, where over the weekend for the very first time, a U.S. fighter jet shot down a Syrian warplane.

GREENE: Yeah, the U.S. military said it was acting in, quote, "collective self-defense." The Syrian plane was shot down after it had dropped bombs on local forces who get support from the United States, a reminder that this conflict in Syria has just become more complicated. I mean, not only is the country locked in this civil war, as it's been for six years, but there's also the fight against the Islamic State. The United States is involved in that fight against ISIS, but so is Russia. So is Iran. And in fact, on the very same day the U.S. shot down that Syrian warplane, Iran's Revolutionary Guards said it fired several missiles at ISIS positions in Syria.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Alison Meuse is with us now from her base in Beirut. She's been following everything. Hey, Alison.

ALISON MEUSE, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?

MARTIN: Good. So the U.S. has been very careful to circumscribe its objectives in Syria, saying that it's just going after ISIS. But now that it's shot down this Syrian target, does this change anything?

MEUSE: Does it change anything? It's hard to say at this point. The U.S. has previously targeted a Syrian air base, in the wake of the chemical attack that was in April. But the U.S. has repeatedly stated it does not intend to fight Syria's army or its allies. But it has also said it will protect its partner forces. Now, Syria's military says this is an infringement on its territory and that its forces should be the ones to retake this area from ISIS. So neither seems to want to stand down. So this could spell more conflict.

MARTIN: So - and we should clarify. The U.S. said that it was protecting or retaliating against an attack that had been made on local forces that the U.S. is supporting. So it does get complicated. What is the nature of that support? When we say U.S.-backed forces in Syria, what does that even look like?

MEUSE: Well, the U.S. has been building up and giving air support to an alliance of mainly Kurdish and also Arab fighters in eastern Syria, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. And as we speak, the SDF is waging an offensive on the ISIS-held city of Raqqa. But the Syrian military and its allies also want to be the ones to retake some of this critical eastern territory from ISIS. So these U.S. partners are coming into contact now with the Syrian regime forces. And that is the issue we have today.

MARTIN: And of course there are other big players involved, right? Russia is involved in Syria, has been supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. So has Iran. Any reaction from those countries to this U.S. strike?

MEUSE: Well, indeed, Iran just launched missiles from - from Iran into Syria against ISIS. Now, this struck an area a bit away from the Raqqa front. But again, it shows how many different players are operating. As for Russia, Russia and the U.S. have supposedly agreed on de-confliction zones. But the Russians have condemned all U.S. strikes and responses to the Syrian military, saying that this is an infringement on their territory and that Syrian troops - and, of course, their allies, Russia and Iran - should be the ones to fight ISIS.

MARTIN: Alison Meuse in Beirut talking to us via Skype. Thanks so much for your time, Alison.

MEUSE: Thank you.

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MARTIN: All right, David, now some news closer to home. There has been a crush of news out of Washington over the past few weeks.

GREENE: You think? You think? (Laughter).

MARTIN: (Laughter) Just a little bit. And seems not much of it has had anything to do with the president's actual legislative agenda.

GREENE: And it was a bold agenda - I mean, and still is. Republicans are vowing to rewrite the tax code, initiate a health care overhaul, act on infrastructure, introduce a very dramatically different budget. Now, President Trump tweeted, and he seemed very optimistic. He said - and I quote, "the make America great again agenda is doing very well despite the distraction of the witch hunt. Many new jobs, high business enthusiasm, massive regulation cuts, 36 new legislative bills signed, great new Supreme Court justice and infrastructure, health care and tax cuts..."

MARTIN: That's a long tweet.

GREENE: "...In the works." It was a very long tweet. I think it was two - maybe three, two.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Yeah, it must have been.

GREENE: Yeah, exactly.

MARTIN: OK, so the witch hunt the president is referring to there, that's how he describes the Russia investigation - overseen by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, we should say. Susan Davis is here. She covers Congress for NPR. Sue, Republicans have all the power in this city right now. What have they been able to do with it?

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: You know, they have been able to put some points on the board. In the beginning, they rolled back some Obama-era regulations affecting everything from Internet regulations to gun policy. They've managed to keep the government open. They passed a bundle of spending bills that...

MARTIN: It's a low bar (laughter).

DAVIS: It's a low bar. And then, just last week, they sent a bill to the president that would make it easier to fire employees at the VA. That was, of course, in response to the health care failures at the department. But the president has not had any major legislative victories in his first few months in office, which is something that new presidents want to show that they're delivering on their campaign promises.

MARTIN: How much of that has to do with all these Russia investigations? I mean, is it about this cloud that the president has characterized as looming over his administration thus far?

DAVIS: No, it's really not. You know, the Russia investigation, of course, is driving a lot of the news. But I'd say in the nitty gritty work of legislating, it's really the health care bill that's been the logjam here. The way that the budget rules work, they just simply can't move on to other fiscal issues - like the budget, like tax reform - until they resolve the health care issue. Now, that may be they move on and don't pass a bill. But until they make a decision to either pass a bill or move on, nothing else can really leave the station.

MARTIN: Why is that - because everything is linked?

DAVIS: Yes. Essentially, the way that the budget rules work, you can only work on one of these bills at one time. So you have to sort of dispatch with health care before you can move on to tax reform.

MARTIN: Or they have to just say, forget it; we're not going to address health care, which, politically, is difficult.

DAVIS: Exactly, and then move on to tax reform. And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is sending very clear signals that he wants a final answer to this question, one way or another, before the July Fourth recess, which means they have about two weeks in the Senate to sort of make that call.

MARTIN: How likely is it that they're going to be able to make that deadline?

DAVIS: You know, I've heard estimates that they have as many as 47 votes ready to go. You need 50 to pass it. Although, being three votes shy in the Senate is like falling three votes - three yards short of a touchdown and saying, we almost made it. So 47...

MARTIN: Again, a low bar.

DAVIS: ...Is still a long way away.

MARTIN: (Laughter). Susan Davis, she covers Congress for NPR. She joined us up first this morning. Thank you for being here, Sue.

DAVIS: Have a great day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.