I have mentioned this briefly in a previous post as it was already up in the e-magazine format, but my latest longer piece for HSToday is now live online in a more standard format and so can be easily reposted here. The piece was the cover story and explores the security questions around the London Olympics, in particular the terrorist threat. This subject is going to be getting a lot more attention as time goes on and I already have a couple of things coming together, but journalists and others interested, feel free to get in touch via the contacts page.
London prepares for the Olympic Games in the shadow of terrorism.
By: Raffaello Pantucci
05/07/2012 ( 2:39pm)
In a decision that took everyone by surprise, on July 6, 2005 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) awarded London the 2012 Olympic Games. Camera crews at the ceremony in Singapore had to swivel their equipment to catch the English team’s response, poised, as they all were, to expect a Team Paris victory. Then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, who had taken the time prior to the G8 Summit he was hosting at Gleneagles, Scotland, to support the London presentation in Singapore, captured the nation’s jubilation when he said “it’s not often in this job that you punch the air and do a little jig and embrace the person next to you.” Revelers in Trafalgar Square in central London unfurled flags of thanks and celebrated long into the night.
This joy was not shared by a group of young men in Leeds, who were instead preparing themselves to make a quite different contribution to Britain’s history. Having trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan, the three young British-Pakistanis and a convert friend had prepared a series of explosive devices using hydrogen peroxide with chemical detonators. Initially aiming to carry out their attack on July 6, 2005 they were delayed when the leader’s wife had difficulties that required him to postpone their attack by a day. Waking up early on the morning of July 7, they headed down to London where they were spotted, in the words of eyewitnesses, “euphorically” embracing before each headed on to different London transport lines to detonate their rucksack bombs among the morning commuters. Fifty-two people were killed, and London’s joy turned to ash as Britons realized Al Qaeda terrorism had come to their shores.
Now, almost seven years after that terrible day, London is a transformed city that has spent many millions on security, faced a series of terrorist threats both domestic and external and is gearing up to welcome some 10,500 Olympic and 4,500 Paralympic athletes alongside many millions of eager spectators—not to mention the potentially billions of television viewers. As the opening of the 2012 London Olympics approaches, how prepared is the city for the big day?
At a Jan. 25 conference at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London examining Olympic security, Home Secretary Theresa May clarified that, “We know we face a real and enduring threat from terrorism and we know that the games—as an iconic event—will represent a target for terrorist groups.” With the official security level placed at “severe,” which means “an attack is highly likely” according to assessments by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center, the terrorist threat is diverse with many different return addresses.
Lindsay Clutterbuck was a detective chief inspector in specialist operations at New Scotland Yard and is currently a research leader at RAND Europe who worked on a project in 2007 on possible threats to Olympic security. She told Homeland Security Today the problem for British security forces is that they “cannot just focus on jihadi terrorism or the IRA [Irish Republican Army]—there is a need to look globally.” This means that, not only do they need to worry about international terrorist networks linked to Al Qaeda or affiliates, but they also need to worry about London being used as a platform by other terrorist organizations seeking to advance their cause in the glare of Olympic attention.
But what exactly does this threat look like? Clutterbuck said it is “hard to see the interest in the Olympics to the IRA as it exists today, except as an opportunity to advertise the fact that, as Gerry Adams once said of the Provisional IRA during their ceasefire from 1994, ‘They haven’t gone away, you know.’” She added that no Irish Republican group has launched a successful attack on the British mainland for nearly 10 years. When attacks did occur, they tended to be aimed at the British government rather than at a large public event like the Olympics.
Well-connected sources indicated to Homeland Security Today that a raising of the threat level in 2010 was linked to a specific threat emanating from Irish groups that had managed to send a viable explosive device to an official site in London.
The desire by Irish groups to attack the United Kingdom is longstanding. As John Bew, deputy director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation, put it to Homeland Security Today early last year, Irish groups are “trying something every day” and there was “absolutely no question” they were trying to target the British mainland. However, when asked about potential targets, Bew estimated it was likely they would aim at official or financial targets and most likely telephone in warnings.
The larger threat is perceived as emanating from Al Qaeda-inspired or linked networks. This was the sense of a conference hosted at the University of Oxford in early January aimed at helping Britain’s security forces prepare for the games. Participants discussed the threat from international terrorist networks like Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Somalia’s Al Shabaab, Nigeria’s Boko Haram or terrorist networks based in Pakistan. Primary among these is, of course, Al Qaeda, but of late, local groups like Lashkar E Taiba or Tehrik E Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have become seen as increasingly international threats. In January 2011, Britain added TTP to its list of proscribed terror groups, reflecting a sense that it was a direct threat to the United Kingdom and that its support networks existed in the UK. As Minister for Immigration Damien Green put it to Parliament, “proscribing the TTP will enable the police to carry out disruptive action more effectively against any supporters in the UK.”
Participants at the conference were particularly concerned by the potential for some sort of assault on the games by a group emulating the success of Lashkar E Taiba’s assault on Mumbai, India, in November 2008.
The threat to the UK has been somewhat persistent over the past year, though Homeland Security Today’s security sources boldly stated they saw the overall threat from international terrorism decreasing. Plots with links to Pakistan were broken up in London, Stoke and Birmingham. In the linked London-Stoke cases, the plotters were planning some sort of campaign in the UK using AQAP’s Inspire magazine as their guide, while the Stoke group was also developing a madrassa in Kashmir that it planned to turn into a terrorist training camp. The Birmingham case has yet to go to trial, though Homeland Security Today is given to understand that it involves individuals who trained in Pakistan and were prepared to be suicide bombers. What is not clear is who was telling them to do this or where they had trained.
More worrying recently has been the upsurge in British connections with Somalia. Late last year, Kenyan authorities disrupted a cell in Mombassa that included at least one Briton—a young convert named Germaine Grant. A troubled former criminal, Grant had been radicalized while serving in Feltham Young Offenders Institution—the same British prison where Richard “shoe bomber” Reid was radicalized and where Muktar Said Ibrahim, the leader of the cell that conducted a copycat attack on the London underground system on July 21, 2005, served time for petty crimes.
All of this emerged at the same time Al Shabaab officially announced its allegiance to Al Qaeda and London hosted the Somalia conference to bring worldwide attention to the country.
So far Al Shabaab has not launched any direct attacks on the United Kingdom, or anywhere outside Africa, but the group has been linked to networks and cells across Europe, Australia and North America. In particular, there have been a number of prominent Al Shabaab clerics now back in Somalia who spent considerable time in the UK and may have been British passport holders. Their support networks were most clearly seen in a case in Leicester where two men were suspected of supporting the group abroad and helping run the Al Shabaab-supportive alqimmah.net. The men were not charged, but they appeared online after they were cleared and at least one is now believed to have moved back to Somalia. The connections and networks all these individuals leave behind are unclear.
And finally there is Yemen, where AQAP continues to plot attacks abroad as it consolidates its territory on the ground. Since managing the failed but close-call attacks using Umar Farouk “underwear bomber” Abdulmutallab on a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas 2009 and the October 2010 attempt to send two bombs concealed in printers in cargo planes, the group has seemingly slowed down its international targeting. In part this is believed to be due to pressure on the ground and a number of deaths thanks to drone strikes—including one that claimed American-Yemeni preacher Anwar Al Awlaki and his Pakistani-American sidekick Samir Khan. But the group also seems to have decided to consolidate the territory it is holding on the ground. Nevertheless, master bomb maker Ibrahim Al Asiri, whose fiendishly clever devices were able to fool airport security officers at four different airports and British bomb disposal experts who went looking for them, remains at large and plotting.
The potential danger to the Olympics was brought into focus by a police and Home Office report leaked to the press in February. Addressed to the local authorities in Waltham Forest, a northeast borough of London that is home to part of the Olympic park, the report expressed concerns about “a high-level threat of Al Qaeda-inspired extremism from males aged between 20 and 38. The individuals of interest to the police are predominantly British-born second and third-generation migrants from Southeast Asia. There is also interest from a number of Middle Eastern political movements and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups from north Africa.” The report said the risk was driven by, among other things, “perceptions of inequality driven by relatively high deprivation levels, particularly within Pakistani communities.”
In an attempt to address these specific threats, the police have allocated three community engagement officers to Waltham Forest and each of the other Olympic boroughs.
But so far there have been no direct public threats to the Olympics from any of these groups. In fact, when asked, British security officials point to the potential menace from lone wolf terrorists or self-activating individuals inspired by groups’ ideology as the biggest potential threat. As Clutterbuck put it, the jihadis who are a problem “aren’t an organization.”
There is a strong sense that British security services have a very good overview of domestic groups that have made connections with Al Qaeda or affiliates abroad. But when it comes to what can loosely be termed the lone wolf threat, the picture is much less clear.
The potential danger of such individuals was brought rudely to everyone’s attention by Anders Behring Breivik’s attack in Norway that killed 77 people in a bombing and shooting rampage last July. In that case, a lone wolf terrorist was able to maintain good operational security, obtain bombs and guns, and effectively launch a large-scale terrorist attack without alerting authorities.
The threat to the Olympics, however, is not solely linked to terrorism. In a report published by the Home Office in January titled London 2012 Olympic Safety and Security Strategic Risk Assessment (OSSSRA) and Risk Mitigation Process, the Olympic Security Directorate laid out a five-risk matrix addressing: terrorism, serious and organized crime, domestic extremism, public disorder, major accidents and natural events.
Beyond these threats, Home Secretary May highlighted the “strong possibility” of a “threat from cyber crime [and] from so-called ‘hacktivist’ groups. These groups may attempt to target the games and may also attack the websites of high-profile sponsors associated with the games.” Of late, British police have been under particular pressure from cyber criminals and have been involved in trying to thwart the efforts of the online collective, “Anonymous.” A hijacked recording of a conference call between British police and their American counterparts that was leaked on YouTube highlighted the degree of activity that British authorities were monitoring in the United Kingdom. And since then, they have been involved in a number of arrests at home, but also investigations abroad.
While hacktivists are a risk, however, according to the Home Office, “the most likely (and current) threat is cyber-enabled ticketing fraud and e-crime carried out by organized crime groups.”
In response to questions from Homeland Security Today, Home Office spokesman Richard Worth said, “The cyber domain also provides both threats and opportunities when it comes to dealing with public disorder. Our cybersecurity work for the Olympics will take account of the implications from the recent riots in London and elsewhere in the UK.”
This was a reference to the fact that during the riots in the UK last year, Blackberry messenger and other social media tools proved to be important means for rioters to marshal and target their efforts. In response the British government jailed a number of individuals with heavy sentences for posting inflammatory messages on Facebook and looked into how the government can better monitor and control such online networks.
But the menace that would likely “wake up a chief police officer screaming in the middle of the night,” according to Clutterbuck, is the “combined threat.” In other words, a situation in which these threats converge simultaneously: a riot breaks out at one site, while a bomb goes off in another and hacktivists choose just that moment to launch an attack on communications networks or websites.
The subsequent demand on resources would be difficult to manage and might lead to the system becoming overwhelmed. And beyond the problems associated with the Olympics, there is always the danger of criminals using the elevated police attention in one place to carry out a large theft or some other operation in another. In February 1994, while much of Norway’s attention was on the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, thieves snuck into an exhibit linked to the games and stole one of Edvard Munch’s famous “Scream” paintings. Distracted by the games, police only noticed much later that the gallery had been robbed. The difficulty for London police will be to maintain normal levels of policing in the UK’s bustling capital while also raising their game to meet the enhanced needs of the Olympics.
On Feb. 22, London’s security apparatus launched a major two-day security exercise called “Forward Defensive.” Involving some 2,500 people, the exercise involved officials right up to the ministerial level and was intended, according to Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, “to test how senior decision makers manage the impact of the incident, the investigation to catch those responsible and a range of issues such as travel disruption, protest and organized crime which may impact on the smooth running of the Olympic Games.” The exercise simulated an attack on London’s underground system, using an abandoned underground station in the middle of the city as the staging point. Actors playing injured citizens could be seen being marshaled by emergency services while police and ambulance services practiced how they would respond to such a scenario. During the second day, police and investigators discreetly went through the motions of how they would conduct an investigation into the incident.
The particular difficulties of responding to a terrorist attack in the underground were brought home during the July 7 bombings, and a recent coroner’s report on the incident highlighted a number of problems in the response. Seven out of nine recommendations in the report were directed at emergency responders—including calls for inter-agency training, a review of the protocols used in emergency situations, a new system to devise a common rendezvous point at an emergency scene, a review of the system to confirm the power to train lines is off during an incident, and an improvement of medical supplies available in underground trains and platforms. An additional two recommendations were directed at hospital staff, in particular asking for them to be further trained in dealing with mass casualty incidents.
Following a model of attack similar to the July 7 bombings involving a bomb in a bag left in an underground train, “Forward Defensive” tested many of these systems, and authorities seemed pleased with the results. But given the £487 million ($765 million) for additional policing and wider Olympic security that is expected to be spent during the games, and the total £582 million ($914 million) that the Home Office reports it is budgeting for the Games’ venue security, it is not surprising that they are glad the test went well. It is a substantial amount of money to spend at a time when the British government is pushing through a tough austerity package to try to help the UK out of its current financial doldrums. As Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt put it, “what we didn’t know when we won the bid in 2005 was that we would be right in the middle of the worst financial and economic crisis since the 1930s.”
In response to questions from Homeland Security Today, the Home Office reported that the money was not only covering the additional policing, but also “making venues secure, including physical security, such as fences, and search and screening equipment, and personnel security.”
What was not clear was whether this also included the substantial military deployment rallied to help at the games. In late December, it was announced that 13,500 military personnel were to deploy in support of security during the Olympic games, a figure greater than the 9,500 British troops currently serving in Afghanistan. Of these forces, 7,500 were to be used in “venue security,” a further 5,000 in support of police, while 1,000 were being kept in reserve as a contingency force. Among these forces are likely to be additional EOD (explosive ordnance disposal) units, since only the Metropolitan Police has a dedicated EOD unit, and the games and torch relay will span the country. Additional Typhoon fighter jets are to be deployed near London alongside surface-to-air missile positions. Airborne Warning and Control System planes will be in the sky, while HMS Ocean, an amphibious assault ship that is the largest in the British Navy and serves as a landing platform for helicopters, is to be stationed in the Thames.
Watching a test run of the forces in early March, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the forces would be part of an “umbrella of security” over the games.
This massive deployment was something that Homeland Security Today encountered in person when attending a conference in Oxford in early January. Officials present noted that many of them were being drafted to prepare for the games. During the conference, presentations were made about subjects as diverse as the threat from terrorist groups in South Asia, crowd psychology during a terrorist incident and how communities in the UK were working to counter the terrorist threat. Beyond the British domestic deployment, a number of national teams, like those from Israel and the United States, will likely send their own security teams to escort athletes. A report in the Guardian newspaper from November 2011 broke the story that Team USA was planning on sending an additional 1,000 agents to help with team security.
Keep Calm and Carry On
Security Minister James Brokenshire delivered the key message for the London 2012 Olympics in a comment after the Forward Defensive exercise: “We are determined to leave nothing to chance to deliver a safe and secure games that London, the UK and the world can enjoy.”
With more than 380,000 applicants for accreditation to work at the games needing vetting and the numerous sites and threats faced, the logistical challenge is considerable. But the longer-term problem is the fact that after the games there is likely to be a substantial drop in appetite to maintain the current levels of high spending on counterterrorism.
Security experts both in and out of government suggested to Homeland Security Today that the sense is that if the UK can safely get past the games, then the threat from international terrorism will continue to slowly recede. Since 2007 the UK has not faced a serious plot with external connections that was able to get to the implementation phase. Any plots since have involved lone wolves. This has fed a public perception that the threat is going down, regardless of whether that is really true. That the internal security assessment to some degree matches this perception means that it is almost certain major budget cuts to security are going to take place after the Olympics.
There are implications from this. As Tobias Feakin of the Royal United Services Institute laid out in its February 2012 report, UK Terrorism Analysis, “We currently have in the UK a generation of police officers who almost exclusively have experienced growth in their budgets, so this situation is new to them, and so are the changes that budget cuts will bring around.”
The longer-term implications of this drop still need to be considered, and of course, this trajectory may be sharply adjusted in the face of a successful attack. But what is clear is that some sort of a threat remains. It will menace the London 2012 Olympics and is likely to continue beyond the games. Threats notwithstanding, Britain wants to ensure the games go ahead without any hitch, finally redirecting the public mood that was so abruptly soured on July 7, 2005 and bringing the country some light in dark economic times.
The actual site of the Olympics is a substantial one, stretching across London and down through nearby Dorset, which will host the sailing events. The main Olympic stadium has been completed, at a cost of £486 million ($763 million). It joins a state-of-the-art aquatic center costing £269 million ($422 million), a velopark, a basketball arena, an indoor handball and fencing arena called the Copper Box, the Riverbank Arena for soccer and an Olympic Village. And of course, prior to the games, there will be a torch relay that will cover much of the country. Some 8,000 torchbearers will carry it through more than 1,000 urban areas.
It’s all a potential target set that is worryingly large, in particular since the expectation is that, if an attack were to take place, it would be more likely to happen at a low-profile site or somewhere unrelated to the Olympics. The logic, as explained to Homeland Security Today by a security official, is that the Olympic sites will be hardened and seem impregnable, so would-be terrorists will opt for others. At the same time, simply by conducting an operation in the UK during the games, or any time in the run-up, terrorists could cause an incident the international media would report as an attack on the Olympics.