Terrorist attacks like those against London could provoke system overreaction, which is undesirable and ineffective, given the target

At a time when London’s bus and underground railway system has just been bombed by terrorists using tactics typical of al-Qaeda, it is worth reflecting on where transport security stands today.

After the 7 July central London attacks, UK airport security was not changed because it was already at a fairly high level. But the major London airport operator, BAA, says “additional measures” were put in place in case the terrorist plan included a strike against aviation to complete a macabre public transport trilogy. No evidence was found of an attempt to hit aviation, however, and all the London airports continued to operate as normal.

Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, the White House reacted by declaring a nationwide Orange Alert, with emphasis on public transport security. It is reasonable to examine the contrast between the London and Washington approaches. The London reaction is proportional, the Washington reaction appears total. Is London underreacting? Is Washington overreacting?

The main security agencies of both nations claim their underlying security policies are the same – that actions taken should be based on intelligence received and risk assessment. But the difference in the reactions to security events makes it look as if London sticks much more closely to that professed common formula than Washington does.

Perhaps this can be explained by a natural collective US human reaction to the sheer magnitude of the 11 September 2001 attack compared with those in Madrid, Bali or London, and the step-change in al-Qaeda tactics and ambitions that 9/11 represented. Perhaps the USA is the top target for certain types of terrorist. But on the other hand, maybe its reaction represents a need for government agencies to be seen to do something because of the US press response if they do nothing.

It should not matter, intrinsically at least, whether government security policy is influenced by press expectations, unless the result is damage to the real effectiveness of the security system. One way to assess whether that is true is to look at how the joint “enemy” – Islamist extremist terrorism, mostly perpetrated by al-Qaeda – has acted since 9/11, then to examine whether the security system reactions to it are proportional.

Nothing new can be said about 9/11. It was a catastrophically successful, multiple strike by al-Qaeda within one hour. Aviation was not the target – it was the weapon. America has not, apparently, been targeted by al-Qaeda on its homeland since then.

Madrid was a catastrophically successful multiple attack against people using public transport, and had the hallmarks of an al-Qaeda operation. There has been no al-Qaeda-type attack in Spain since then.

The Bali bomb attack looks al-Qaeda-inspired, but did not have all the classic hallmarks of that group’s methods or objectives. It was carried out in a culturally Islamic nation after a period of considerable internal instability against a resort popular with “Westerners”. There have been no further terrorist attacks of this type in Indonesia.

The London operation was classic al-Qaeda in that it was an infrastructure-orientated, multiple attack calculated to kill large numbers of people, and the explosions were co-ordinated to occur within a short period. Exactly how the explosives were deployed, by suicide bombers or conventionally positioned, was not known as we went to press.

Whether there will be another attack against London or the UK by al-Qaeda in the near future only time will tell, but precedent and what is known of the nature of the organisation would suggest not. Its successes so far have been the result of its micro-cellular structure. A small cell forms, plans autonomously, and strikes, either eliminating itself in the process or dissolving immediately afterwards. Its ephemeral structure makes it difficult to counter while limiting its ability to strike again.

The main question for security services is whether countering this type of operation by trying to close every potential door will be effective. It is certainly not cost-effective. Aviation has shut out another 9/11 by fitting secure cockpit doors and totally changing on-board drills in the face of a threat. On the ground it operates a system that is at least a deterrent. Targets of opportunity are now the name of the game for al-Qaeda, and aviation is not the opportunity it was. Intelligence, risk-assessment and proportional response is the only sensible system against this threat.

Source: Flight International