Fortress London?

Daniel Schmerin addresses the deficiencies in the physical protection of UK government facilities

Recent events, especially the Madrid train bombings on 11 March 2004, have substantially complicated the international security situation and have once again forced countries to reassess their strategic posture and counter-terrorist techniques. Government officials have quite candidly admitted the ‘inevitability’ of a terrorist attack in the UK, with London an obvious target. Though the UK has actively addressed the steady stream of threats emanating from Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the implementation of advanced protective measures to key government facilities has been ominously sluggish. Given Al-Qaeda’s proclivity for simultaneous and large-scale suicidal assaults, the UK government is undoubtedly aware that many of its high-value facilities in and around Whitehall make very attractive targets for terrorist bent on inflicting significant and large-scale devastation. A rather pedestrian survey of several government buildings in central London - including the Cabinet Office; the Foreign & Commonwealth Office; the Home Office; New Scotland Yard; and Portcullis House - reveals a decidedly low level of pre-incident security. With an air of invulnerability, these buildings are furnished with minimal physical protection and visibly lack appropriate fortification. As the three-year anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks approaches, the UK government cannot afford further delays in implementing adequate measures to protect its infrastructure.

Al-Qaeda’s leadership has demonstrated a penchant for employing non-traditional operations and strategies to wage a new type of warfare. Its increased reliance on suicide techniques emphasises the breadth of this terrorist phenomenon and the determination of the dangerous networks conducting these campaigns. Despite counter-terrorist efforts, suicide terrorists have retained their initiative and proven adaptable to hostile environments. Without enhancing their resistance to attack, government facilities in central London will remain particularly prone to two types of suicide improvised explosive devices (IEDs) previously employed by Al-Qaeda operators: the vehicle-borne suicide IED and the aerial-borne suicide IED. The recent initiative to erect a towering concrete wall around the Houses of Parliament is adequate proof that the UK government recognises the severity of the threat it faces and the need to improve the resilience of critical sites.

Pertinent questions

However, if the government does consider itself a likely target, then it is fair to question why many of its offices still lack serious fortification. Should they not receive the same level of protection currently provided to other high-risk facilities in London, such as the US embassy?

The US has taken vast measures to improve security at many of its facilities in urban and rural areas. In Washington, DC, ‘hardening’ key sites has caused traffic patterns (both automobiles and aircraft) to be redirected; has increased restrictions on vehicular parking; and has expanded security perimeters by several hundred metres in certain cases. Cynics may wonder why government buildings should receive greater protection than other potential targets. However, the terrorism in Madrid was a clear demonstration that alternative, soft targets can be attacked; such attacks apparently produce the results desired by the terrorists. In responding to such legitimate questions, several points should be emphasised:


  • a government must take steps to ensure that terrorist attacks will not impair its ability to perform critical missions, maintain order and deliver minimum essential public services;


  • a government that cannot protect itself from attacks will lose public confidence in its leadership abilities and its capacity to ensure public safety, and may be viewed as weak or vulnerable both in a domestic and international context;


  • a government that does not effectively project security and stability at the domestic level risks a disruption of its financial markets, a reduction in foreign direct investment or even a permanent tarnishing of its economic reputation; and


  • government facilities can represent shared cultural or symbolic values, such as liberty, freedom, and democracy - the very ideals that many modern terrorists seek to attack.

Balancing the demands of a democratic society for open and accessible government with the need for constructing physical barriers and establishing security perimeters around government facilities is a complicated task. Yet the government has a responsibility to protect the nation’s collective interests, and designing place-specific security measures is part of this task.

When a nation boldly fortifies itself to enhance security, it may be making certain structures physically safer. However, it runs the risk of altering the environment - in a visual or aesthetic sense - to such an extent that it makes the populace more nervous and may actually increase feeling on insecurity. In seeking to find the right balance, governments must consider their actions in absolute/relative terms and implement the most feasible solution (for instance, devices which are less obtrusive or unaesthetic yet equally effective in affording protection).

Initiatives for greater intelligence-sharing and resource-pooling, evident in the establishment of the British Joint Terrorism Assessment Centre in 2002 following the Bali bombings in Indonesia, are commendable but largely insufficient on their own. The need to diversify national counter-terrorism strategies is significant, given that organisations such as Al-Qaeda may operate their own counter-intelligence cells specifically designed to confuse or mislead governmental security agencies. In this respect, the 11 September attacks confirm that effective homeland security must involve a combination of intelligence operations, a more visible police presence and the physical protection of critical assets.

In his recent characterisation of terrorists as "smart operational animals", Central Intelligence Agency Director George Tenet alluded to the insurgents’ ability to attack functional and symbolic targets, to disrupt the continuity and effective management of key assets, and to drastically affect public confidence both at home and abroad. A co-ordinated and properly executed attack on government facilities by terrorists operating in London would achieve these goals in ‘spectacular’ fashion. To respond to these challenges, the UK government should embrace a strategic shift in thinking about domestic terrorist attacks on its own facilities - one which will address issues immediately and pre-emptively rather than waiting until after the supposedly inevitable attack occurs. The UK authorities cannot continue devoting so much attention to their traditional concern for keeping ‘intruders’ out of government buildings if it means that they neglect the installation of protective measures for the structures themselves. An active and unremitting homeland defence posture warrants new protective schemes that fuse these two dimensions - proper screening of visitors by a robust security force in conjunction with revised exterior shielding. Improving the physical infrastructure of these facilities could take the following forms:


  • erecting a combination of removable, automated hydraulic and permanent bollards (as employed around the MI5 building) to establish a defence perimeter around facilities which are currently unsecured;


  • constructing anti-aircraft batteries on several well-situated rooftops, both to protect Whitehall and to prevent aircraft (especially those on approach to Heathrow) from catastrophic diversions;


  • employing rising road barricades to protect buildings in heavy congestion areas and create more separation between the structures and potential car bombers;


  • increasing the blast resistance of many installations, especially by reinforcing glass windows and strengthening frames; and


  • posting armed officers outside all critical facilities to increase visible presence and intensify surveillance.

Given London’s status as a renowned world city, the introduction of measures intended to hinder terrorists’ ability to damage central government infrastructure can be easily justified. Since this ‘defensive construction’ would be designed for permanent implementation, its costs should be measured over the long term and viewed as an investment whose benefits will be reaped well into the future. In this respect, the UK government’s rationale should be straightforward: recent terrorist attacks abroad and thwarted attempts at home have provided actionable intelligence that warrants a reduction in the physical vulnerabilities of key assets before attacks occur.

More pertinent questions

The current vulnerabilities and apparent protection priorities of the government raise important questions, including:


  • Why does the UK government continue to allow civil aircraft to fly over central London?


  • Why do the Houses of Parliament have better physical protection than other parliamentary facilities, such as Portcullis House or the Norman Shaw buildings?


  • Why is the permanent closure at Canon Row (leading to parliamentary offices) much less guarded than the closure to Downing Street?


  • Why is King Charles Street - one block south of Downing Street and separating the new Treasury building (1HGR) from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office - a completely unsecured area and open to all public traffic?


  • Will the new Home Office (HOCLAS) project include the construction of a security perimeter and ‘hardening’ of the exterior before it is completed?


  • Should traffic patterns be reconsidered around Whitehall in order to improve management capabilities and to bolster security perimeters (such as restricting lane use for certain vehicles)?


  • Should the UK accept a radical alteration in the design of its urban spaces in order to improve security and to cope with impending threats from suicidal terrorists?

The UK’s history of confronting terrorism has prepared it well for the grim realities of the 21st century. While its training operations for emergency response (the 1 November 2003 preparedness drill conducted near Abingdon, for instance) have been laudable, a concerted focus on preventative measures deserves even more attention. The current strategic environment necessitates an adaptable and constantly changing protective scheme that will limit the terrorists’ operational flexibility and prohibit them from identifying a standard operating procedure.

Old notions of security, which were appropriate to deal with other forms of terrorism, must be heavily revised in order to counter the threat posed by groups such as Al-Qaeda. Today’s suicidal terrorists - individuals who do not view their survival as a concern, who do not want to negotiate and who are intent on disabling national resources by causing major destruction and casualties - pose an enormous danger to the civilised world. The application of so-called ‘defensible-space principles’, as employed in the City of London during the 1990s, is a crucial component of any tactical preemption strategy designed to disrupt the intentions of shadowy terrorist networks and mitigate the effects of possible attacks. To improve the resilience of its critical infrastructure and reduce the risk of catastrophic attacks, the UK government must maintain its vigilance and immediately adopt comprehensive protective measures for its key facilities throughout London.

Daniel Schmerin conducts research on the role of the financial services sector in the war on terrorism


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