Five men were attacked with acid in London, with one man suffering life-changing facial injuries in what police on Friday were treating as linked assaults.
The five attacks on Thursday night, which were reported to police over a 70-minute period, are the latest in a spike of incidents using corrosive liquids as weapons in robberies and gang-related violence in the British capital.
Police said at least four of the five attacks involved two males on a moped, and in at least two cases the attackers stole mopeds belonging to their victims. Another incident involved a robbery.
A 16-year-old boy was arrested on suspicion of grievous bodily harm and robbery, and is currently in custody at an east London police station. A 15-year-old boy was later taken into custody on the same allegations, according to police, who appealed for witnesses to come forward. Four of the attacks happened in the eastern borough of Hackney, and one other in Islington, in the city's north. All five victims were taken to hospital.
According to a report released by the Metropolitan Police Service in March, acid attacks are on the rise in London. In 2014, there were 166 filed incidents, rising to 261 in 2015, and 454 in 2016. Acid attacks in London are largely concentrated in the city's east.
The lack of a pattern in the types of victims makes it difficult to police a response to the increase in crimes. Unlike in South Asia, where women are disproportionately targeted by acid attackers, "here, two-thirds of victims are men," Jaf Shah, executive director of Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI), said. Early data suggests that the majority of both attackers and victims are white British men, he says, but the motives span from revenge attacks to hate crimes, domestic abuse, gang crime and organized crime. This "complex picture" is muddied by the lack of a standardised approach to recording these crimes, he says. "You need to have the data otherwise there is a blanket response that doesn’t tackle or reach those communities," he says.
The law is also yet to catch up to the new trend. Carrying a bottle of acid is not illegal in Britain, but carrying a firearm or concealed knife is. "The police force have their arms tied behind their backs," Labour Party lawmaker Stephen Timms, who is the member of parliament for East Ham, said. "While the laws are not in place, that means they can't arrest anyone walking around with sulphuric acid."
The use of corrosive materials is not a new phenomenon in Britain. Sulphuric acid, which used to be referred to as vitriol, was first manufactured on an industrial scale in the country during the 18th century. A Glasgow newspaper, Reformers’ Gazette, recorded in 1832 that a man was hung for throwing vitriol on a fellow servant while he slept and soon a term was was coined for acid attacks, vitriolage. Later in the 20th century, popular culture began making references to it. Notably in Graham Greene's 1938 book Brighton Rock the young anti-hero carries a vial of vitriol that becomes the eventual cause of his demise.
Now, young Britons are arming themselves with acid once again. Teenagers from deprived areas are bringing bottles of acid to school as a form of self-defense, according to the London Times. The bottles can evade metal detectors installed in certain schools to tackle knife crime. West, from the Metropolitan Police, suggests that those under the age of 18 should be banned from buying corrosive materials, similar to restrictions on buying knives.
Sarah Newton, an official from the Home Office, told the BBC that tighter restrictions on acids and tougher penalties for their misuse were being discussed.
"I and my colleagues in the Home Office have been increasingly concerned about the escalation of instances – especially in London. So, we've been working with the Metropolitan Police and community policing some months now," she said.
Parliament is due to debate the issue on Monday next week at the request of MP Stephen Timms from the main opposition Labour Party.
"Too many people are frightened of becoming a victim. Ministers need to act," said Timms in a statement before Thursday assaults.
Corrosive acids are still quite easy to purchase from local, everyday stores around the UK. Acid was in the past more commonly used in personal disputes, often perpetrated by men against their female partners. Several other recent acid attacks in London have appeared to be racially motivated.
Following an attack in June on 21-year-old aspiring model Resham Khan and her cousin Jameel Muhktar, a petition on Change.org demanding that the UK Parliament require individuals purchasing acid to hold a special license now has almost 370,000 signatures.