London police adjust to new threats
UK officers praised for rapid response
LONDON: The image of a special-forces helicopter landing on London Bridge on Saturday night raised the question of whether the British capital is becoming more dangerous — or is in fact better defended than ever.
The attack, which killed seven people, was the second time in three months that London has come under attack, after a similar assault on the country’s Parliament in March. Prime Minister Theresa May was accused on Sunday evening by Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn of failing to protect the public by starving the police of funds.
And yet, the three terrorists who carried out the London Bridge attack were dead within eight minutes of the incident starting after police officers — who are generally unarmed in the UK — fired 50 rounds. Four years ago, it took 15 minutes for police to arrive on the scene when an off-duty soldier was attacked by two Islamic extremists. Even then, they shot to wound, rather than kill, the assailants.
“The fact that the response time to these attacks was really quite quick, and the authorities didn’t hesitate to shoot these individuals down, is a reflection of the fact that the police are on the front foot,” said Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
“We have a fantastic capability in this country and we’ve always been able to develop it, change it in response to the threat,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said yesterday. “We will need to change again.”
It’s more than just the style of policing that’s evolved as the city adjusts to a new brand of do-it-yourself terrorism that involves tiny cells rather than sprawling support networks. The face of London has changed, too, as bollards, railings and subtler forms of protection have been placed near landmarks and on sidewalks. Authorities want to defend the city, which is proud of its historic stoicism and show-must-goon attitude through decades of terrorism, without squeezing freedoms.
“There’s a lot of conversation about the security landscape and how to make even benches a protective feature so that it doesn’t make everyone feel like they are living in a fortress,” said Brooke Rogers, reader in risk and terror at King’s College London. “I’ve seen the testing of some of these bollards and they actually drive very large trucks into them.”
Police are stepping up drills and security on the streets as the challenge facing them continues to shift. Terrorists are using cars and knives, as they did on Saturday night and in the March attack outside Parliament, which are harder to pick up in advance than explosives.
Whereas in the past, “there was a much stronger sense of organisation with a network component,” according to Florian Otto, head of Europe and Central Asia analysis at Verisk Maplecroft, it’s now “much more atomised” with jihadists radicalising in isolation from organised groups.
“We seem to be facing a threat that is posed by people with largely a domestic focus, although there are some international dimensions,” said Ms Dick. “We’re dealing with people who appear very volatile, very unstable ... people who are prepared to use low-tech methods and sometimes go from thinking about the idea to actually carrying out an attack in a very short space of time. So this is very, very challenging.”
Security services catch far more wouldbe-attackers than they miss. The security and intelligence agencies “disrupted five credible plots” since the Westminster attack, Ms May said on Sunday. Home Secretary Amber Rudd said last month that security forces are looking at 500 different plots and monitoring about 3,000 people on a “top list” of suspects. Another 20,000 people feature on a lower-level list of people who have been probed at some point but are deemed less of a threat.
While police are fighting the renewed threat from Islamist terror, their budgets have been squeezed by austerity — something that’s become an election issue with the opposition Labour Party accusing Ms May of putting security at risk. On May’s watch as home secretary, the number of police officers in England and Wales declined by about 15%.
Home Office figures show London has lost some 1,750 officers since the Conservatives came to power in 2010. With four days to go until the general election, Ms May is promising greater powers for police, while Mr Corbyn is pledging an increase in numbers.
As the election campaign increasingly turned to focus on terror, Londoners were taking the attacks in their stride. Cafes, underground trains and restaurants were full on Sunday, even as London Bridge remained cordoned off.
“If something did happen here, who’s going to stop it?” asked Laura Winner, 33, a market- stall holder in Brick Lane, east London. “It’s just an open road. You’ve just got to get on with it. They want you to be scared.”