Westminster Attack: How Has Our Ability To Fight Terror Changed Since 7/7?

By James O Malley on at

Yesterday London experienced its largest terrorist incident since the 2005. It was 12 years ago when terrorists detonated three bombs on the London Underground Tube network at Edgware Road, Russell Square, and Aldgate, with  one other on a bus outside the British Medical Association at Tavistock Square. Since those devastating attacks, which happened now over a decade ago, terrorism has rarely been out of the news, so it seems pertinent to ask the question: How has London's terror response changed since then? Is London now better equipped to deal with a terrorist attack than it was then?

First Responders

Perhaps the best place to start is with the first responders. One of the major challenges on 7/7 was the inability of the emergency services to effectively communicate. In 2005, radios did not work on the Tube network, which hindered the ability to coordinate the rescue of the people trapped underground. So a new technological solution was sought.

In 2009 though this problem was solved with the expansion of the police, ambulance and fire services’ “Airwave” network to cover the 125 Underground stations that are actually underground. These devices don’t use the normal mobile network, but a special “trunked” network designed for emergency services, and is arguably more analogous to old-fashioned walkie-talkies than mobile phones.

Perhaps the most significant change for first responders has been in how they can communicate with the public. With the rise of social media, various first responding actors like the Metropolitan Police and the London Ambulance Service are able to get the message out directly to people via Twitter and Facebook - as well as collect valuable on-the-ground intelligence.

But here's the surprising thing: this appears to be about it in terms of cutting-edge technology, as far as I can tell.

Throwbot image credit: Recon Robotics

When I set out to write this article, I was hoping that it would be a run-down of James Bond-style gadgetry that has been deployed to stop terrorists, but instead it seems as though the response has been more subtle. New gadgets exist, like the “Throwbot”, which is essentially a camera on wheels and is designed for reconnaissance in tight spaces. But nothing like it appears to have been deployed on a large scale, at least according to publicly available information. Similarly, you might expect drones to play a role, and we know that police forces are increasingly interested in drones. But it doesn't appear that they are yet part of the standard emergency response toolkit.

Responding to terrorism then is a more complex question. Essentially, if you’ve got a terrorist with a bomb, a gun, or a knife, it is already too late. So as a result, most of the responses have been preventative. And here there have been much bigger changes.

Preventative Measures

Technological change has still played a role. Since 7/7, real time CCTV has been introduced on London buses, using the 3G and 4G networks to send the signals back to base.

At airports, full body scanners have become more common, which are capable of not just detecting metal but non-metallic items hidden on someone too. Millimetre Wave Scanners were introduced by the UK Borders Agency and work a bit like a sonar - using electromagnetic radiation bounced off of a person, and measuring what it gets back to generate an image.

Similarly, in the last few years the government has approved explosive trace detection systems for use in airports.

Perhaps the most intriguing subtle innovation though has been the continued expansion of “militarised architecture”.

In 2011, Tom Dyckhoff from The BBC’s Culture Show made the above film, which is a fascinating look at London’s “Ring of Steel” (which was actually created as a response to the IRA) and other architectural responses to the terrorist threat.

Essentially, next time you’re at a major public building, have a look at the bollards and plant pots surrounding it, which may have been placed more thoughtfully than you thought. As the film points out, the concrete pillars that run along Whitehall may look old or decorative, but they are actually a new addition designed to stop vehicles (ie: car bombs) getting close to the buildings.

In the years following 7/7, pretty much every major building in London has been constructed or retrofitted with these sort of considerations in mind. In a sense the wall around Parliament, which long pre-date 7/7, is an early example of this sort of architecture - which, as we saw yesterday is specifically designed to prevent cars from getting inside the Parliamentary estate. The fact that it sort-of fits in with Parliament's aesthetics is just a bonus.

This subtle defensive design is now commonplace. The City of London, which is home to skyscrapers, banks and other presumably desirable targets, is only accessible through a handful of entrances. Other roads into the City are closed off; not with scary looking barriers or walls, but through pedestrianisation and the creation of new gardens. By funnelling everyone who enters the City through these specific entrances, they can ensure that every vehicle that enters – and possibly every person – is recorded on CCTV.

Terrorism Acts

Perhaps the biggest changes since 7/7 though have been in terms of policy. Since 2005 there have been two major laws passed: The Terrorism Act of 2006, and the Counter-Terrorism Act of 2008 (despite the opposite names, both acts are designed to stop terrorism). Both were controversial.

The 2006 Act let police hold terrorists without charge for up to 28 days (though Tony Blair wanted 90), on the basis that it could take that long to decrypt information from terrorist hard disks. The 2008 Act required convicted terrorists to report their whereabouts and also passed a draconian rule that effectively outlawed photographing members of the army, police or intelligence services on the basis that the photos could be used to help terrorists plan an attack. As you might imagine, photographers weren’t happy with this, and many commentators have argued that it could be used to harass journalists who want to write about, say, police brutality for example.

There has also been a number of other laws passed and proposed. Perhaps most notably is the Investigatory Powers Act - or "Snooper's Charter", as it is also known. This requires ISPs to hold on to all customer’s internet records, including all messages sent and web pages accessed, for 12 months. Needless to say, this has received huge amounts of criticism from organisations that support civil liberties.

The argument in favour of data retention is that it would allow the security services to run algorithmic searches to pick out terrorist activity. For example, by spotting patterns in the data that occur before one terrorist attack (certain messages sent to certain people or places), the theory is that the next one can be flagged up and interrupted before anything bad happens.

This “big data” approach has already been tested, albeit not on terrorism as far as I’m aware. By running an analysis of crime data, models for “predictive policing” have been developed. This isn’t quite Minority Report, but the idea is that algorithms can tell police where to patrol based on the odds of crimes occurring there, and the presence of law enforcement should scare off the criminals before anyone gets hurt.

Whether this is making the city any safer, and whether it better prepares London to tackle terrorists, remains an open question. What's clear is that such data retention is an enormous assault on civil liberties. And interestingly, though the law was passed last November, it has yet to come into force because it is bogged down in legal action from by rights groups.

Terrorist Tactics

We’re not the only side changing to meet the threat of terrorism – the terrorists themselves are adapting. It has been noted, for example, that Al Qaeda and ISIS have moved away from big attacks and towards smaller, more frequent attacks - which could perhaps be why the most recent atrocities such as those in France and Tunisia have been gun attacks rather than bombings. As a result British police have long trained for what they term "Mumbai-style" attacks, named for the 2008 gun attacks there.

This could also impact how easy it is to detect terrorist plots. It might be possible for security services to spot when groups of suspicious people are exchanging messages and buying the material for a bomb, but it could be more difficult to spot how one lone terrorist acquiring a gun is any different from an individual, lawful gun owner doing the same.

The flag of IS. Image credit: Wikimedia

There is also the risk that terrorists will also turn to new technology, just as we have. Surely it is a grim inevitability that at some point, say, a consumer drone will be used for nefarious purposes. With regards to that, have we taken potential new threats into account? Banning consumer drones would be stupid given how they could, by and large, improve our lives (drones could not just deliver us packages, but deliver lifesaving gadgets in emergencies). But the proliferation of drones will also create new challenges for us and opportunities for bad guys.

Difficult Trade-Offs

Fighting terrorism has always been about making decisions based on difficult trade-offs. And this has always meant that policy makers have to make difficult decisions where it is almost impossible to judge which option is better. And since 7/7, we've seen several of these trade-offs in action.

For example, the technology exists that could make it possible to fly and land a passenger plane remotely to stop a 9/11-style attack. But so far, it doesn’t appear to have been implemented anywhere, because the trade-off is that it could create enormous cyber security problems. For security people, the question is what is more likely: A hijacking or a cyber attack? How can we be sure they’ve taken the right or wrong decision until something bad happens?

In fact, this goes back even further. The post-9/11 decision to install locks on cabin doors was a trade-off, as we saw when pilot Andreas Lubitz deliberately crashed his Germanwings plane in the French Alps. It was a situation when getting access to the cabin could have conceivably saved lives, but because the cabin was locked out of fear of hijacking, there was nothing anyone could do.

This means that while we may be doing a lot, how effective it will be is a largely open question. Actions we do take should be necessarily weighed against the cost of taking them. The Snooper’s Charter as mentioned above, for example, is a hugely draconian piece of legislation that potentially gives the state access to the sort of information that the East German Stasi could only dream of. Is surrendering civil liberties worth it for the hypothetical improvements in our ability to fight terror?

Interestingly, in this case it seems that most terrorists who attack Europe already tend to be known to the security services, suggesting that the current system works rather well, without the need for blanket snooping. So why do we need to surrender more liberty? (My policy analyst friend Michael has coined Story’s Law to describe this phenomenon, so confident is he in it.)

Ultimately, the only way we’re going to be 100 per cent protected against terrorism is if we lived in a totalitarian society where everything is controlled and nobody is free. But nobody wants that. So instead fighting terrorism is about minimising the probabilities of attack. So for the question of whether London is better prepared now than it was in 2005… it is really hard to say.

Pic at the top: BBC. Obviously.

This is an updated version of a piece first published on the 7th July 2015.