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Ensuring security at the Royal Wedding

Commentary, 23 April 2011
Terrorism
With hundreds of thousands of people lining up the streets and millions watching the televised event around the world, it is no wonder that policing the Royal Wedding will be seen as a valuable and precious security test ahead of the Olympics next year. In particular, many will watch closely how effectively stretched police resources will be managed and maximised.

With hundreds of thousands of people lining up the streets and millions watching the televised event around the world, it is no wonder that policing the Royal Wedding will be seen as a valuable and precious security test ahead of the Olympics next year. In particular, many will watch closely how effectively stretched police resources will be managed and maximised.

By Valentina Soria for RUSI.org

Celebration at Buckingham Palace

With less than ten days to the big event, security preparations for the royal wedding are well under way and will continue to be refined until Prince William and Kate Middleton will tie the knot next week.

Although the hope is for the country to fully enjoy the couple's happy day, the police and the security services will certainly take no chance, having already made clear that criminal activity will not be tolerated. 

In a country where the terrorist threat level stands at severe, historic or high-profile events very soon become preferential targets for groups and individuals willing to stage some sort of 'spectacular' attack to raise their profile and advance their cause. That the royal wedding and the nationwide celebration which will accompany it is potentially viewed by extremists as a golden opportunity in this regard should not come as a surprise, as disturbing as this fact can be for the large majority of people who would regard an attack against the Royal Family as an attack against traditional British values and society as a whole. 

Although no specific intelligence has emerged so far that would suggest a terrorist attack is being planned for the big event, disruption of any sort cannot be ruled out and, in fact, it appears likely that some groups will try hard to spoil the joyful atmosphere that, by and large, will characterise the day.

Types of threat

Islamist extremist groups and individuals rank high on the list of the most likely security threats to the royal wedding. In their view, not only does the Royal Family represent the essence of the British society, but its members are also seen as advocates of British imperialism[1] and 'enemies of Allah'. 'Muslims against Crusades', the extremist group behind the despicable poppy burning incident which took place on Armistice Day last year, has recently seen its application for staging a protest outside Westminster Abbey on 29 April rejected by Scotland Yard. A similar request from the English Defence League, which was supposedly planning to hold a counter-demonstration, has been equally turned down, but there are fears that the two extremist groups will go ahead with their plans anyway, with the possibility of witnessing a problematic physical confrontation between the two. Indeed, although under the Serious Organised Crime Act of 2005, the police have the power of denying permission to protests which could disrupt the royal event, they can only stop demonstrations from taking place along the route taken by the couple, while these protests could still be staged elsewhere in London or in the country.[2]

At the same time, a more sophisticated attack from Al Qaida-inspired groups aimed at striking at the heart of the celebration seems unlikely, the reason for this being the all-round and exhaustive security arrangements in place along the royal route rather than a lack of interest from these groups in embarking upon such a mission. 

Unsurprisingly, security officials also acknowledge that Irish terrorists represent another plausible threat, with groups like the 'Real IRA' having allegedly tried to move their operations from Northern Ireland into the capital for some years.[3] The increase in operational capabilities of Irish dissident groups is a worrisome development which had been already highlighted in the context of security threats to the 2012 London Olympics,[4] it has been reported recently that an SAS team did uncover hostile reconnaissance activity undertaken by an Irish terrorist cell plotting to stage a 'spectacular' attack in London. Both the 2012 Games and the royal wedding were identified as potential targets.[5]

Islamist and Irish terrorism would certainly pose the biggest security threat but organised protests and actions from anarchists and similar groups would be equally disruptive, if successfully staged. Police have already warned that any criminal activity will be dealt with decisively, quickly and robustly and, although some controversial powers, such as the anti-terrorism stop and search one, will not be adopted, 'pre-emptive' measures [6] will certainly be employed to prevent 'troublemakers' from creating chaos and disorder. 

 

This approach indicates that the risk threshold will necessarily be very low as the police understandably want to avoid a repeat of the violent incidents that characterised the fees protests last year; serious operational mistakes committed in those circumstances led the police to re-examine in particular their plans for crowd control [7] and the effectiveness of specific tactics like 'kettling'. They also realised the power and potential of social media tools like Twitter and Facebook which protesters used first to organise their actions and then to circumvent police intervention. It is hoped that the risk-intelligence approach which is particularly critical in policing big events will benefit from such valuable insight.

Security at Big Events

The security operation for the royal wedding will see the deployment of 5,000 police [8] officers, at an estimated cost of £20 million. [9] With hundreds of thousand of people lining up the streets and millions watching the televised event around the world, it is no wonder that such an operation is seen as a valuable and precious security test ahead of the Olympics next year. Roughly 10,000 police personnel will be on the beat to ensure safety and security over the sixty days long period of sport competitions. The intensity of the effort for the wedding will undoubtedly be smaller but the quality requirements will be equally demanding.

What will be particularly interesting to observe is how effectively stretched police resources will be managed and maximised to ensure the smooth running of the event.

Such 'optimisation' exercise is made even the more critical by the intrinsic symbolic value that high-profile events like the royal wedding or the Olympics entail: indeed, such symbolism tends to play particularly well in the hands of terrorists willing to use that platform to raise their profile. To be successful in these extraordinary circumstances, terrorists do not need to strike at the heart of the celebrations but can stage attacks anywhere else during the event timeframe. Such attempts would still be perceived as an attack against the event itself and, for this reason, would have the same effect in terms of the psychological impact on the public and the reputational damage to UK police and security services.

The paradox of the 'total security' age in which we live today is amplified by the mismatch between public demands for a 'zero-risk' environment which should be in place for high-profile events and the tight resource constraints that the security services face when performing their fundamental task.[10]  

It is probably unreasonable to demand a flawless police response in every circumstance, especially at a time of financial and resource hardship, and, for this reason, it would be appropriate to adjust expectations accordingly. At the same time, though, police and the security services in the UK have an impressive positive track record of big event security and there is every reason to believe that they will strive to keep it that way. In fact, if properly exploited, the next big events in store for the country will contribute to improve that record so as to make the UK a world model for event security.

For this to happen, the police need to capitalise on their strengths and maximise the effectiveness of existing assets. In avoiding a perilous complacent attitude, they need to work on mechanisms and procedures which leave room for improvement and possibly optimise the contribution of other actors and partners.

Ultimately, this attitude is crucial to promote the image of the UK as a model of preparedness and resilience in the management of big event security, something which can be regarded as a reliable indicator of its largely sound and effective national security infrastructure.

NOTES  

Notes 

1. 'Extreme Muslim Group Calls for 'Forceful' Anti-Royal Protest', Channel 4, 19 April 2011

2. Ibid.

3. Jenny Wilson, 'Officials: Terrorist Threat Possible at Royal Wedding', TIME, 20 April 2011

4. Valentina Soria, 'Beyond 2012. The Quest for Security Legacy'RUSI Journal, vol. 156, n 2, April/May 2011, p.37

5. Tom Harper, 'SAS Team racked 'Irish Terror Cell Plotting London 2012 Bomb Attack', London Evening Standard, 20 April 2011

6. 'Extreme Muslim Group Calls for 'Forceful' Anti-Royal Protest', Channel 4, 19 April 2011

7. Margaret Gilmore, 'Countdown to the Olympics', RUSI Journal, vol. 156, n 2, April/May 2011, p. 32

8. 'Royal Wedding: Muslim Group's Abbey Protest Blocked', BBC News, 19 April 2011

9. 'Royal Wedding: the Ring of Steel to Keep the Royal Couple Safe', The Telegraph, 12 April 2011

10. Valentina Soria, op.cit., p. 38

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