The ringleader of terrorist group responsible for the London Bridge attack tried to hire a 7.5 tonne lorry hours before the rampage, police have revealed.
Detectives believe many more could have died if Khuram Butt had not failed to secure the vehicle because his payment did not go through.
The jihadi, who worked on the London Underground for six months, despite having appeared in a documentary about Islamist extremism, instead resorted to ‘plan B’ and rented a white van.
On Saturday June 3, the group — made up of Butt, Rachid Redouane and Youssef Zaghba — killed eight and injured dozens more in the attack in central London.
It is thought three victims were killed on the bridge — including one man who was thrown into the Thames — before the attackers left the vehicle and stabbed five people to death around Borough Market.
It has emerged that multiple petrol bombs were found in the van used in the outrage, while a copy of the Koran opened at a page “describing martyrdom” was discovered in the east London bolthole where the three men plotted the attack.
Commander Dean Haydon, head of the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command, revealed that Butt had attempted to hire a lorry online on the morning of the atrocity.
He said: “Because of the fact his payment method failed he couldn’t get hold of that lorry. My view at the moment is that he then went to plan B and ended up hiring the van instead.”
Mr Haydon said: “When I come back to Butt trying to get hold of a 7.5 tonne lorry — the effect could have been even worse.”
The potential for large vehicles to inflict mass casualties was laid bare in horrifying fashion last year when a lorry drove through crowds gathered to celebrate Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring scores more.
Mr Haydon said: “It’s feasible when you look at their actions, they were still fairly close to the van, there is a possibility they could have come back to the van.
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“Was there a plan B that, after they had stabbed individuals, were they then planning to come back to the van and ignite the Molotov cocktails and that was a secondary attack?
“We don’t know – I can only surmise.”
Police also found a number of office chairs, bags of builders’ gravel and a suitcase in the van.
Detectives believe the gravel may have been placed in the vehicle to make it heavier, or as part of a cover to justify hiring it, while the chairs may have been used to convince family and friends they were moving furniture.
Butt, a 27-year-old Pakistani-born British citizen, and his two accomplices, Rachid Redouane, 30, who claimed to be Moroccan-Libyan, and Youssef Zaghba, a 22-year-old Italian national of Moroccan descent, were shot dead by armed police eight minutes after the first emergency call.
The trio were wearing hoax suicide belts made of plastic water bottles wrapped in grey duct tape.
Mr Haydon said the belts were tested by explosives officers who found they were not viable.
“I can only assume they were part of trying to cause fear amongst people who came across them,” the senior officer said.
Asked if the vests may have been worn by the attackers to ensure they were shot dead, he said: “It’s possible, we don’t know.”
Three 12-inch knives with pink blades were recovered at the scene of the killings.
On Tuesday counter-terror officers raided a top-floor bedsit in Barking Road, east London, which had been rented by Redouane since April.
This address is being treated as the “safe house” where the three men plotted the attack.
Luggage straps, plastic retractable craft knives and rolls of duct tape were also found.
A huge investigation was launched in the wake of the attack, with 18 people arrested so far.
Thirteen have been released without charge, while five men aged between 27 and 30 remain in custody.
Searches have been carried out at 12 properties, with eight ongoing. Detectives expect further searches and arrests to be made in the coming days.
Police have made a number of international inquiries as they work urgently to establish how the three attackers knew each other, as well as investigating whether they were helped through funding or any other means.
Mr Haydon added: “We are not looking at the moment for a wider network.
“It looks as if it is pretty much a contained plot involving the three of them, which is supported by the forensic evidence we’ve got back so far.”
The officer appealed for vehicle hire and haulage firms with suspicions about rental attempts to come forward as security services work at an “extraordinary” pace to try to face down the wider threat.
He also asked for information about anyone buying “odd quantities” of petrol or lighter fluid for no apparent reason, as well as changes in behaviour and unusual activity at addresses.
Anyone with information can contact police on 0800 789 321 or visit gov.uk/ACT