The London Olympics are nearly upon us, and while a lot of the focus is going to fall on how disorganised the whole affair will inevitably be, I'm shaken more by the opportunity it presents for a large scale terrorist attack. I'm usually the last person to jump on board the 'Oh my god, terrorists lurk behind every corner' bandwagon, because that's simply not the case. However, there are a few things about the Olympics that make me particularly uneasy.
Firstly, Olympic security has already come under heavy criticism due to the Group 4 Security foul up that has created a deficit of 3,500 security guards just weeks prior to the start of the Games. Not only does this demonstrate how little government oversight there has been for security preparations, but it also creates a problem for the forces who will inevitably replace them. I have serious concerns about the vetting process of security personnel hired at the last minute for an event where proper preparation and an understanding of likely threats takes weeks or months, not a few days.
Moreover, it should not be the job of the British Army, drafted in at the last minute, to act as security guards or to have to try to identify terrorist threats. The kind of training in body language and profiling employed by border security personnel allows for the detection and detention of individuals acting suspiciously before they clear security. However, if similar responsibility is handed to the army it will either result in suspicious activity being missed, or people being erroneously arrested.
Secondly, this is the first major worldwide sporting event since the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Yahya al-Libi. While most analysts agree that Al Qaeda is not remotely the group it was a decade ago, we cannot forget that there remains a small cadre of individuals who will want to perpetrate an act of vengeance against a Western target. If an attack was to happen, it would be most likely to take the form of a small group of isolated Al Qaeda inspired individuals, rather than some centralised plot. If they are acting alone, without substantial financial or logistical support from a larger organization the chances of detecting them in advance drops significantly.
The standard procedure for intelligence agencies intercepting Al Qaeda inspired terrorists relies on offering them some form of support (whether financial or logistical) and then arresting them once they reveal details of their plan. If a smaller group was acting entirely alone it could prepare for and carry out an attack without anyone outside of the group knowing - including law enforcement agencies.
Already speculation is growing that there could be some sort of attack against Israeli athletes at the Games, to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre. However, such an attack would be relatively unlikely to succeed given the high level of protection afforded by increased security measures following the bus bombing in Bulgaria and the presence of Israel's Shin Bet security forces. However, this should not breed complacency about the potential for other types of attacks. The recent 6 July terrorism arrests in Yorkshire came as a result of a lucky break with a traffic stop for expired car insurance which led to weapons being found inside the vehicle. This was not targeted intelligence on a nascent terrorist plot, but blind luck. We cannot rely on terrorists being dumb, or law enforcement agencies getting lucky for an event of this magnitude.
Tactically, the easiest and most likely type of attack at the Olympics would be a Mumbai-style swarming attack, which would be extremely hard to defend against. The unpredictable nature of where a swarming attack would be likely to occur means that the best measure of preparedness available is for multiple response centers based close to potential target areas. However, this can never provide complete safety from an attack on the transport network or an unexpected target within the city. London's transport network will already be under a huge amount of stress during the Games, and it is questionable what police rapid reaction force response times through traffic would be and also how quickly emergency services would be able to reach the site of an attack.
It is somewhat surprising that terrorists have not already targeted large sporting events in the West, as they provide both a target-rich environment and suffer from a relatively low-level security presence. Large crowds of people move slowly, and have to travel through several choke points on their way into stadia. In security terms, this makes them perfect fodder for ambushes.
There are ways that these dangers can be mitigated - airlock systems, long single-file queues as opposed to large gaggles of spectators and 'dead zones' of empty space that provide a buffer zone in case an attack does take place. However, even this does not protect against the Al Qaeda methodology of using a small bomb to draw in first responders and then following this up with a second larger bomb to cause greater death and injury.
A particularly illustrative case of the dangers faced at London 2012 is the 1996 Olympic bombing at Centennial Park in Atlanta. The bomber, Eric Robert Rudolph, called in a warning to police before the bomb went off. Even though the bomb detonated before the time given by the bomber, and while 111 people were injured, only one person was killed by the bomb. It is not hard to imagine how different the outcome would have been if there had been no warning, or a second bomb had gone off.
The slipshod preparedness for the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates a real lack of care and attention from those in seats of power in UK government, and with matters of security that is utterly unconscionable. It should have been clear from the outset that the UK did not have remotely enough trained security personnel for an event of this size.
By relying on a private security company and due to a reckless lack of oversight, the security of the Games has been placed in an extremely precarious position. The first preparations when the London 2012 bid was successful should have revolved around a realistic security assessment of the venues, target hardening and a no-nonsense approach to hiring security personnel. Judging by the fact that an Olympic worker managed to successfully smuggle fake explosives into the Olympic Stadium in May 2012, the preparations undertaken were clearly woefully inadequate.
The approach that seems to have been employed so far centers on visible policing - such as putting surface to air missile batteries on the roofs of tower blocks and placing snipers around venues. This will no doubt be supplemented by heavily armed police surrounding stadia once the Games themselves begin. The problem is, if any of those measures have to be employed, the security apparatus has already failed.
Deterrence does not work against people who are prepared to die while carrying out an attack and relying on overwhelming force in the aftermath of an attack can be counterproductive and unwieldy. Real investigative policing, overtime for detectives and better intelligence gathering would all have been far more valuable and cost effective in the run up to the Olympics - which begs the question why they were not used.
Unfortunately it seems as if the focus is more on making it look like people are safe, rather than making the environment itself safer. For these Olympics I'm really worried that is not going to cut it.