LONDON – The Italian mother of one of the London Bridge attackers said Wednesday her 22-year-old son became radicalized in Britain, falling under the spell of Islamic extremism and confiding to her that he had dreams of moving to Syria.
Valeria Khadija Collina said her son Youssef Zaghba, an Italian national of Moroccan descent, told her he wanted to go to Syria to start a family in a religious Islamic climate — not to fight. He changed, she said, when he went to Britain about a year ago and was seduced by radical views propagated on the internet.
“Last year … when I went to England, he was a bit more rigid,” Collina, a convert to Islam, told reporters in a series of interviews Wednesday. “From his face, from his look, I could see there was a radicalization, as you say, and this happened in England, absolutely.”
Police have named Zaghba as one of the three attackers who drove a rented van into pedestrians on London Bridge before fleeing into a busy market place and stabbing those who crossed their path. Eight people were killed and dozens were injured. All three of the attackers were shot dead by police.
The other two attackers were identified as Khurum Butt, a 27-year-old whose extremist views had been reported to police, and 30-year-old Rachid Redouane, also known as Rachid Elkhdar, a Moroccan pastry chef. It was not immediately clear how the three knew each other, but Collina said she recognized both Butt and Elkhdar as friends of her son.
Butt, who was born in Pakistan and moved to Britain as a child, had worked as an office manager at Kentucky Fried Chicken. KFC spokeswoman Jules Pars said Wednesday that Butt worked there in 2015. The company was looking into Italian media reports that Zaghba also was a former employee.
At least two of the attackers were known to British intelligence and law-enforcement officials, raising questions about whether anything could have been done to prevent the assault.
Italian authorities said Zaghba was stopped at the Bologna airport in 2016 and questioned in Italy, but never charged with a crime. Italian officials said suspicions about him were shared with British authorities and his name was subsequently listed in the European-wide intelligence-sharing system. He was also stopped at London’s Stansted airport in January, but let go.
Collina says police called her when her son was stopped at the airport on March 15, 2016 and asked if she knew he was going to Turkey. Collina says she told them to detain Zaghba and prohibit him from going.
His passport and cellphone were seized, but he got them back after a court determined there wasn’t enough evidence to arrest him. Authorities said he aroused suspicion because he tried to board a flight to Turkey with a one-way ticket and a small backpack.
Collina said Zaghba was monitored by Italian intelligence agents each time he came to Italy to visit her after his initial run-in with airport authorities.
Collina said she told her son, “At this point you should be perfect. You should not even look at anything a little bit strange on the internet, you should see the right people and do the right things and it seemed like he was doing it,” according to audio of her group interview provided by the ANSA news agency.
She said she didn’t approve of his London friends and never felt comfortable in the London neighborhood where he lived. But she put much of the blame for her son’s radicalization on Islamic propaganda found on the internet.
“It is a horrible thing, something that should not happen,” she said. “How can you say something sensible about things that are absolutely senseless?”
British security and law enforcement officials are investigating Butt as the potential ringleader of the cell, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the ongoing details. Several people had alerted police to Butt’s extremist views in the past two years.
Saturday’s attack — the third in three months in which the majority of the suspects had been on the radar of security officials — has prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to call for tougher counterterrorism laws even if it means changing human rights protections.
Reaction to the attack has dominated the final days of campaigning before Thursday’s general election in Britain. Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and others have criticized May for cutting police numbers by roughly 20,000 during her tenure as home secretary.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, said Wednesday that a third French victim has been identified among those killed. He did not identify the victim, but British police said the next of kin of 45-year-old Xavier Thomas were informed.
“We are paying a heavy cost in these attacks,” Macron said.
Thomas was walking with his girlfriend over the bridge when the attack began on Saturday night. Police said earlier that witness accounts suggested he might have been thrown into the River Thames, which London Bridge crosses. Thomas’ girlfriend was struck and seriously injured by the van.
The Spanish government and the siblings of Ignacio Echeverría, a 39-year-old banker, also received confirmation Wednesday that he was one of the eight people killed. Echeverría was last seen lying on the ground near London Bridge after he confronted the assailants with a skateboard.
Spaniard Ignacio Echeverría, 39, who tried to defend a woman during London attack, is confirmed dead by Spain https://t.co/6UbO8MrHju pic.twitter.com/2hEfOFPwRK
— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) June 7, 2017
His sister Isabel wrote on Facebook Wednesday: “My brother Ignacio tried to stop some terrorists and lost his life trying to save others.” Echeverría’s brother Joaquin told a news agency that a diplomatic process had begun for relatives to see the victim’s body and to eventually take it back to his native Spain.
Relatives of Australian Sara Zelenak have confirmed she was another of the victims of the weekend attack. The 21-year-old worked as a nanny in London and had previously been described as missing since Saturday night.
Police early Wednesday arrested a 30-year-old man in east London in connection to the attack and are searching his home.
Two men are now in custody on suspicion of violating the Terrorism Act. They have not been identified or charged. All others who had been arrested have been released without facing charges.