Can terrorist attacks such as that in London be prevented, and could they happen here?
Ever since 11 September, and more so after its invasion of Iraq together with the USA, the UK has been aware that it would eventually face some terrorist activity. When it came during early July, four bombs wreaked havoc in the metropolis, bringing London's extensive public transport system to a grinding halt, killing some 50 people and injuring hundreds more, including some South Africans. In addition to that the cellphone network was jammed as panicked users tried to contact their loved ones. Unconfirmed reports however indicate that at least one cellphone operator transferred its network for use only by emergency services. Many people have asked me since then how such attacks could be prevented and would South Africa be prepared for such action.
London was also expected to be a target for terrorist attacks and the tube had been identified as the most likely objective. Over the last few years police and emergency service workers have been extensively trained to cope with such a situation and mock exercises have been held at certain tube stations. While explosive devices were eventually used the British had expected the terrorists to use the much more dangerous chemical warfare agents. Reports indicate that the extensive training worked and the emergency services operated effectively in dealing with the catastrophic situation.
Airport and aircraft security received a boost after the Lockerbie disaster in 1988 and this resulted in the technological development of many devices and systems which could identify potential bombs or the presence of explosives. Although these systems were immediately deployed in some airports (such as Frankfurt where the Pan Am flight had originated from), acceptance was slow until the notorious 11 September attacks. Following those the US in particular became paranoid regarding security, and suppliers of baggage screening and explosives detection equipment saw sales take off exponentially. Unfortunately the travellers have suffered through the imposition of very thorough body searching, not being able to carry a pair of tweezers in one's hand luggage, extensive delays of flights and re-routing of aircraft when the passenger list indicated a potential threat. Of course on flights to, from, and within America, passengers have to make do with plastic cutlery and the latest bombshell to hit is that lighters will not be allowed in carry-on baggage, and the number of matches you can carry will be limited. All this having been said there has been no re-occurrence of 11 September and there are no reports of any commercial aircraft since then having been brought down by a bomb.
Air versus ground
So if security can be implemented to prevent terrorist attacks on aircraft, then why can this not be implemented for ground-based public transport? The first problem is the scale of the problem. In London alone many hundreds of thousands of people commute using buses and the underground every day. There is technology available today in the form of walk-through explosive detectors that can handle several people a minute, but the cost of installing these at every tube station would be incredible and it still would not prevent the terrorist to resorting to the even more deadly chemical warfare agents or biological agents such as anthrax. These systems would also be impractical for use on buses. What of course one must remember is that Israel is in a permanent state of internal strife, and despite having the most skilled police, army and intelligence operations such as Mossad they have been unable to prevent terrorist attacks particularly where suicide bombers are used.
On the local front
In regard to South Africa our public transportation infrastructure is minimal and potential terrorists would probably target public buildings, supermarkets and banks. Of course individual buildings are much easier to protect, although recent incidents where firearms have been brought into court buildings means that more emphasis must be placed on the effectiveness of metal detection, X-ray systems and the training of security personnel. These incidents tend to be associated with some other major event, and the 2010 World Soccer Cup must be of concern. My understanding is that the security apparatus put in place for this will be very comprehensive and will make full use of the latest technological tools for detection of improvised bombs and rendering these useless. Just as in airports people worldwide must become more aware of suspicious unattended parcels or bags and report these to authorities. Our police bomb squad unit is one of the best in the world and can rapidly determine whether a suspect device is actually a bomb and disarm or disrupt it. However, the cost for such major events is high, some $1,5 billion having been spent on security for the recent Athens Olympics.
Individual buildings where there is a potential threat could be equipped with simple non-conveyor belt X-ray systems that are often found for example in embassies and consulates. Another ploy used by the more cowardly terrorist is the use of letter bombs so companies' mail rooms should have letter bomb scanners and X-ray machines. The US is now so paranoiac about anthrax that the Post Office has started installing biological detectors to scan their mail.
One should, however, be careful about generalisation. At the height of the troubles in Ireland, many improvised explosive devices were placed by terrorists (if they had not already blown themselves up in the process of making it). Fortunately the IRA was usually quite good about providing warnings regarding these devices as their prime target was the police and the army rather than the general populace. The last devastating bombing was in Omagh where so many women and children lost their lives that people became fed up with the terrorists and peace negotiations are still in progress. Although the British Army was well equipped to deal with these devices many skilled operatives did lose their lives as these devices often had double and even triple booby traps. As one of the leading British bomb disposal experts (Lt Col. Alan Swindley OBE) once told me it was always a battle to keep on top of the IRA. Once the bomb disposal experts learned the tricks of the latest bomb the IRA would change to something else. There is no safe option for bomb disposal operators as recent videos from Russia showed how an operator equipped with the latest technology bomb suit was still killed by the remotely detonated device because he got too close to it without having first identified using an X-ray system, what it contained. The blast from the explosion threw him back and he died from a broken neck, even though his bomb suit had not been penetrated by the ball bearings the device contained.
So what is the answer? For the UK it cannot reverse its decision to assist the United States in both Afghanistan and Iraq so the threat of terrorism will continue, London and the subway continuing to be the most likely targets following the success of this first attempt. The British police used to have an excellent intelligence network and many potential terrorists were arrested before they had planted their improvised devices. This intelligence network must be expanded immediately and made more effective through asking people to report strange activities. The public also needs, and probably is now, to be made more aware of unattended bags and other suspicious items and report these to the relevant authorities. If it is found that no suicide bombers were involved then more CCTV systems need to be installed at both stations and on trains. This should provide a deterrent as the perpetrators are more likely to be arrested after the event. The proposed introduction of an ID card for all UK citizens is a positive step if carrying of this on the person is made mandatory. More police at stations would also be a positive move as they could look out for suspicious passengers of the most likely race and interrogate them if necessary.
As for the future in cities such as London visitors can expect more inconvenience and possible searching. The technology developed for airports such as explosives detectors and walk-through sensors will probably be introduced on a wider scale, with a random selection of people being subjected to this process. The electronic sniffer has been developed to the stage where it is used in the USA to scan complete vehicles entering underground car parks. Perhaps further development of this technology will allow sniffing for explosives in an entire train carriage or bus deck, detection resulting in passengers being evacuated at the next station. In the interim, perhaps more use can be made of trained dogs, as even the latest electronic technology does not approach the sensitivity of a dog's nose.
Of course intelligence can also be used to thwart the efforts of the security personnel. Several dummy parcels were deposited in the city of Birmingham, the weekend after the London blasts. Intelligence indicated that there was a real and urgent threat and more than 20 000 people were evacuated from the city centre. Although there was no bombs the terrorists were once again the winners as they disrupted normal city life and obviously traumatised many people.
In conclusion, it is clear from recent events (New York, Madrid, Bali, London, Ireland, and Israel) that terrorist attacks can be successful anywhere in the world despite the best efforts of security personnel to thwart them. Fortunately for us in South Africa we have a more neutral stance in regard to terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and as a country we are not involved, and will not become involved in any of America's wars destined to bring 'democracy' to countries that do not really want it. We can thus sleep peacefully and need only be more cautious and aware when travelling.
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