United Kingdom’s response to the recent terrorist attacks


Following recent terrorist attacks, both in the United Kingdom (UK) and in Europe, a debate has flourished regarding what measures and policies to implement to prevent further incidents. UK Prime Minister Theresa May declared that “enough is enough”, as she announced plans to introduce new anti-terrorism laws.[i] While her government has yet to implement some of these policies, it has taken other measures to prevent further attacks. These measures range from government approved operations to local authorities bolstering security in their cities and counties. The government has improved the security of key infrastructure, with a special focus on crowded areas. However, most of the new security measures tend to be reactive instead of proactive, something which has had negative consequences at times. 

Increased presence of military personnel and armed officers deters major attacks

The Prime Minister Theresa May, together with the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre (JTAC), raised the threat level from “severe” to “critical” on May 23, after the Manchester bombing, for the first time since July 2007. A decision by the Prime Minister to implement the plan “Operation Temperer” followed shortly afterwards, with the deployment of up to 5,000 armed troops at key strategic sites, such as Heathrow Airport and Bristol Airport.[ii] The armed military personnel were instructed to support armed police officers, thereby assuming the responsibility of guarding important infrastructure and strategic sites, which allowed the police officers to increase their presence on the streets and conduct more patrols in important locations. While most of the soldiers were deployed in London, there was an increased presence in cities such as Manchester and Birmingham during high-attendance events like the Great Manchester Run.[iii]

After Theresa May lowered the threat to “severe” on May 27, armed military personnel remained at the strategic sites, although their numbers decreased significantly. It is difficult to measure whether the deployment of armed troops had an effect on the prevention of further terrorist attacks.  While the Borough Market attack, where eight people were killed, happened after the deployment, it is arguable that the military could not have prevented it. Also, the police officers who responded to the attack were not previously guarding key sites, indicating that the number of officers reacting to the incident as well as their response time would have remained the same regardless of whether military personnel had been deployed or not. However, it is likewise arguable that key infrastructure in the UK is better secured now than in previous months due to the deployment of extra troops.

The response time of the armed officers that arrived first at the scene of the Westminster attack and the Borough Market attack, both from the Specialist Firearms Command (SFD) and Counter-Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officers (CTSFO) have dramatically improved since the introduction of the CTSFO at the 2012 London Olympics. SFD officers are present in cities such as London and Birmingham, patrolling in their Armed Response Vehicles (ARV), and strive to never be more than eight minutes away from the scene of an incident, allowing them to minimise potential deaths and damage caused by terrorists.[iv] The CSTFO now have a 24-hour response team, which has proven invaluable in minimising the amount of citizens deaths, as in the case of the Borough Market attack where the assailants were shot dead seven minutes after the first alarm.

Local measures dissuade attacks on infrastructure

While deploying troops in the cities has been an important action taken by the national government, local authorities have implemented their own measures to prevent further terrorist attacks. The Sussex Police increased their presence around mosques following the attack against the Finsbury Park Mosque, in Sussex County, which killed one person. Local authorities sent out extra patrols around 15 mosques in the county, to reassure the communities and deescalate any tension that might have derived because of the incident.[v] The West Midlands Police increased its number of armed officers by a third since last year, bringing the number of armed police to its highest ever in the city’s history.[vi] In addition to the armed personnel, the city deployed ARV’s to patrol the West Midlands.

In London, security barriers were installed between the road and the pavement on Waterloo, Westminster, and Lambeth bridges.[vii] The security barriers are designed to prevent vehicles from driving up on the pavement, similar to what happened with the Westminster and Borough Market terrorist attacks, and comes after the Metropolitan Police reviewed 33 of London’s bridges. Preventive measures such as this tend to receive support across the spectrum of political parties. The barriers are meant to be temporary, but the government has set no dates on when they will be removed, and it is unlikely it will happen any time soon. Similarly, barriers were constructed during the London Pride Parade early July, to protect against possible vehicle attacks.[viii] Bollards have also been erected at Buckingham Palace and the Mall in London, to prevent vehicles from mounting the pavement area, thereby reducing the likelihood of a Westminster style attack. In Scotland, Holyrood voted on June 27 to subsume the British Transport Police into Police Scotland to provide better security at Scotland’s railways.[ix] While the bill was heavily criticised by the opposition and seniors in the Scottish police force, it ultimately passed, allowing Police Scotland to conduct railway policing.

Future policy

The Queen’s Speech on June 21, which presented the Government’s two-year policy plan, laid out the role of infrastructure and the need for its protection. The policy proposals revolved around critical infrastructure that are owned by foreign groups, and would allow the government to carry out investigations and due diligence on them. This is to make sure that foreign ownership of companies controlling important infrastructure does not pose a threat against the national security of the UK.[x]

At times, proposals to protect against terror attacks have been submitted, but not been implemented on time or have been disregarded by the government or local authorities. Lord Toby Harry’s independent review on how prepared London is to respond to a terrorist incident exemplifies this. Lord Harry’s review, commissioned by the Mayor of London in May last year, offered multiple recommendations to better prepare London for an attack, many of which the Mayor’s Office ignored. Amongst other proposals, he recommended that protective bollards be installed in vulnerable areas, and a proposal to adopt hostile vehicle mitigation mobile barriers be revisited by the Home Office.[xi] As previously noted, the barriers and bollards have now been implemented, but only after the recent terror attacks. If the warnings had been heeded in October 2016, when the review was released, perhaps the vehicle-based terror attacks could have been avoided.

The security of the UK is high on the agenda in the country following the series of attack, and political parties vowed prior to the general election on June 8 to increase the number of officers in the police force. The number of police officers has gradually decreased over the last few years, with a current estimate of 5,639 armed police officers, in contrast to 6,906 in 2010.[xii] Theresa May faced numerous questions on the campaign trail regarding proposed changes to the dwindling police force, but was coy on the topic. While the National Police Chief’s Council plan envisions a stable number of 7,000 armed police officers, the numbers keep on decreasing, something that has a negative effect on the ability of police to conduct preventive work in the suburbs, where many of the radicalised people live.[xiii]

However, the government is allocating more funding for counter-terrorism policing and cyber security.[xiv] Since terrorist organisations such as the Islamic State are relying substantially on social media to get their message and agenda across, cyber security is of immense importance for the UK to counter these groups and prevent further attacks.

As has been visible from the last attacks in the country, the UK Government has been reactive rather than proactive. The measures taken are usually implemented after an attack to prevent further incidents, such with the cases of constructing security barriers near crowded areas. It is notable that it usually takes a tragic event to occur before the government takes proper measures. However, while it is near impossible to prevent all terror attacks, UK has gone a long way of making it as difficult as possible for potential terrorists to carry out their deeds, and that is not a day too soon.

[i] The Guardian,: Soldiers on UK streets as threat raised to critical after Manchester bombing, May 23, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/23/salman-abedi-police-race-to-establish-if-manchester-suicide-bomber-acted-alone (accessed June 24, 2017).

[ii] UK Government,: PM statement following second COBR meeting on Manchester Attack, May 23, 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-following-second-cobr-meeting-on-manchester-attack-23-may-2017 (accessed June 24, 2017).

[iii] CNN News,: Manchester attack: UK reduces terror threat level to ‘severe’, May 28, 2017, http://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/27/europe/manchester-terror-attack-uk/index.html (accessed June 25, 2017).

[iv] BBC News,: Terror threat: UK upgrades armed police response, May 4, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-39810721 (accessed June 25, 2017).

[v] The Argus,: More police around mosques after attack, June 20, 2017, http://www.theargus.co.uk/news/15357969.More_police_around_mosques_after_attack/ (accessed June 25, 2017).

[vi] Birmingham Mail,: Record numbers of armed police on the streets of Birmingham and West Midlands after terror attack, June 19, 2017, http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/record-numbers-armed-police-streets-13202770 (accessed June 25, 2017).

[vii] BBC News,: Building barriers – a new normal for London?, June 5, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-london-40165169 (accessed June 25, 2017).

[viii] Evening Standard,: Concrete blocks to protect London Pride parade from vehicle terror attack, June 23, 2017, https://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/concrete-blocks-to-protect-london-pride-parade-from-vehicle-terror-att-a3571296.html (accessed June 25, 2017).

[ix] Scottish Parliament, Parliamentary Business: Railway Policing (Scotland) Bill, June 27, 2017, http://www.parliament.scot/parliamentarybusiness/Bills/102502.aspx (accessed June 28, 2017).

[x] UK Government,: The Queen’s Speech, June 21, 2017, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/620838/Queens_speech_2017_background_notes.pdf (accessed June 28, 2017).

[xi] London government,: An independent review of London’s Preparedness to Respond to a Major Terrorist Incident, October, 2016, https://www.london.gov.uk/sites/default/files/londons_preparedness_to_respond_to_a_major_terrorist_incident_-_independent_review_oct_2016.pdf (accessed June 28, 2017).

[xii] BBC News,: Reality Check: What has happened to police numbers?, May 26, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/election-2017-40060677  (accessed June 28, 2017).

[xiii] The Guardian,: Police cuts hit UK fight against terrorism, says former security chief, June 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/06/police-cuts-hit-uk-fight-against-terrorism-says-former-security-chief (accessed June 28, 2017)

[xiv] The Guardian,: Police cuts hit UK fight against terrorism, says former security chief, June 6, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/06/police-cuts-hit-uk-fight-against-terrorism-says-former-security-chief (accessed June 28, 2017)

Photo credit: Wikipedia


About Author

Elias Langvad

Elias Langvad is contributor at the International Security Observer. Elias holds a BA in Political Science from Stockholm University and is currently finishing his MSc in International Security, Intelligence, and Strategic Studies at the University of Glasgow. He is currently working at Horizon Intelligence as a security risk analyst for the Europe and CIS regions. He primarily writes about Central and Eastern Europe security, including terrorism, energy, and Russian foreign policy. He is a native Swedish speaker, fluent in English, with an elementary knowledge of Russian.

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