Published On: March 22, 2022

This commentary by Lord Toby Harris for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and is reproduced here with RUSI’s permission.

Last summer, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, asked me to conduct a review of London’s preparedness to respond to a major terrorist incident. My report, ‘London Prepared: A City-Wide Endeavour’, has just been published.

This built on my previous review five years earlier, but the Mayor asked me to revisit all the issues I had considered then, as well as to consider the changing nature of the terrorist threat, the impact on preparedness of the coronavirus pandemic, and also the extent to which my earlier conclusions and the experience of the 2017 (and subsequent) terrorist attacks have been embodied in practice.

My report has been based on more than 100 interviews with senior figures from the emergency services, the transport sector, local and city government, as well as civil servants from several central government departments. In addition, I hosted a series of roundtables with representatives from the business, faith, voluntary and community sectors. While the report is London-focused, the findings have a wider salience and relevance.

The broad conclusion is that very substantial progress has been made by the emergency services and other agencies in response to the 2016 review and in following up the lessons of subsequent attacks. However, the dilemma that haunts all work on preparedness – whether for terrorism or any other crisis – remains: how can you define what is enough? The risk of terrorism remains high. If you are caught up in an incident, the arrival of police armed response in, say, three or four minutes – which is rapid by any account – will still feel like an eternity.

The terrorism threat has changed very significantly since 2016. Then, the context was the series of murderous terrorist attacks, involving firearms and bombs, across Western Europe in the previous year – notably those in Paris on Friday 13 November 2015 which killed 130 innocent people, including 90 at the Bataclan Theatre. The focus then was on multi-person, multi-site attacks. Now, attacks are increasingly committed by individuals. They operate alone, frequently self-radicalising and learning techniques online. Attacks of this nature are inevitably harder to detect and prevent in advance. In the UK, we are fortunate in the quality of the investigatory work carried out by counterterrorism policing and by the security agencies, but the reality is that not all attacks can be prevented. We need to be appropriately prepared for whatever might happen.

And there is no sign that the risks and threats are diminishing – quite the contrary. In online spaces, extremism is increasingly prevalent and, more worryingly still, has become almost normalised. This spills over into greater polarisation in the real world, which in turn can and does lead to violence. International developments do not help. The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has acted as an inspiration to Islamist extremists around the world. There are now more ‘ungoverned spaces’ in which organised terrorism can be incubated. Terrorist techniques developed in various conflict zones are spread almost instantly via the internet.

Meanwhile, democracy and its values seem to be under increasing threat from hostile states and ideologies. Fake news, misinformation and the denigration of science are rife. The events in Washington DC in January 2021, coupled with populist rhetoric globally, have led to an undermining of the rule of law in many countries. The UK has not been exempt from this. We should also be ready to face increasing ‘grey zone’ actions (deniable cyber attacks, possible assassination attempts on UK soil, and so on) from Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions that have been imposed. While not technically terrorist incidents, the consequences for the public and the UK’s preparedness requirements are the same.

The coronavirus pandemic has also had a number of consequences. First, extended periods of lockdown have provided those who are susceptible to radicalisation online with more opportunities to be incited to violent action. Second, the interruptions to business and the requirements of social distancing have changed how people meet and interact with each other. Places that would not previously have been regarded as targets have now potentially become so. Moreover, many of those employees who were experienced in routinely scanning the public spaces in which they worked for signs of potential trouble have lost their jobs or been deskilled through months of furlough; and there is a real risk that security will take second place as businesses desperately try to recover their losses from the pandemic.

Effective security, proper preparedness and the proactive prevention of terrorism are far more than just the responsibility of the emergency services. They have to be a broad enterprise that embraces local government, businesses and civil society, as well as each of us both at home and as we go about our daily lives as individuals. This shared responsibility will require a much greater willingness to share information and intelligence where it is appropriate to do so. In particular, the authorities must ‘dare to share’.

In the same way, local government, the voluntary and community sector, and business all have parts to play. Indeed, every citizen and visitor can provide the crucial eyes and ears on which true vigilance depends. This is the same whole-of-society approach proposed in the chapter on resilience in the government’s integrated security and defence review published in March 2021, which recognises that individuals, businesses and organisations all have to play a part.

My report reaches the same conclusion: security and preparedness need to be built into London’s fabric. Effective protection against terrorist attack must be a city-wide endeavour. Above all, it is important that there is no complacency. We must not be lulled into any false sense of security that because most terrorist attacks are successfully foiled or rapidly interdicted, we do not need to be better prepared.

Preparedness, of course, costs money, whether it is increased physical protection, more staff checking people entering crowded locations, faster emergency response, or all the multi-agency training and exercises that are needed. None of this has been helped by the last decade or so of austerity (nor will it be helped by the financial restrictions that are likely in the next few years). Most services have been squeezed significantly in the last decade. The London Ambulance Service is particularly stretched. However, the report emphasises the extent to which many services, especially those in local government, are an essential component in preventing terrorism and ensuring preparedness in the event of an attack. Successive years of budget cuts have left youth provision, mental health services, and the voluntary and community sector under-resourced – in some cases woefully so. Further cuts will leave the network that enables society to support those at risk of falling into violent extremism – and to respond effectively and rapidly to an emergency incident – spread worryingly thin.

However, this is not just true of terrorism preparedness. Similar arguments can be applied to the UK’s defence capabilities, the robustness of our critical infrastructure, and all the mechanisms to deal with the manifold threats listed in the national risk register.

The simple lesson of the last two years of the pandemic and of our response to other emergencies is that we need as a country to invest more in preparedness and resilience. This means breaking away from a ‘just in time’ philosophy and embracing one of ‘just in case’. It requires preparing for the unexpected and the unpredictable. A National Resilience Strategy is promised in the next few months, and it is to be hoped that this will – as promised – genuinely embrace the same ‘whole-of-society’ approach as is contained in my report on the need for a city-wide endeavour in terms of London’s preparedness.

Lord Toby Harris is Chair of the National Preparedness Commission and Independent Reviewer of London’s Preparedness to Respond to a Major Terrorist Incident.

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