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Pauline Neville-Jones: Responding to large scale attacks in cities

In November last year I was in India when members of Lashkar-e-Taiba attacked Mumbai.  I had planned to travel to Mumbai and stay in one of the hotels that was attacked - the Taj Mahal Palace - during my time in India.  Obviously this leg of the visit did not go ahead, but from Delhi I was able to see first-hand the response of the Indian Government to what was a prolonged terrorist attack.

And earlier this year, in February, I was in Pakistan.  My visit included a trip to Lahore.  Just two weeks after I returned to London, members of the Sri Lanka cricket team were attacked by gunmen as they made their way in a police convoy to play a test match against the Pakistan team.  They were attacked in the very centre of Lahore - Liberty Square - along a route I had travelled along just a few weeks earlier.

The Mumbai attacks rightly worried security authorities worldwide.  Here in the UK, the Home Secretary announced that there had been an overhaul of protective security arrangements for hotels and other public buildings.  The Director General of the Security Service raised a different point when he said: 'If the method used in Mumbai of using firearms in public places becomes adopted as a model, it changes our most likely scenarios'.

The recent attack in Lahore has only added weight to the worry that these are potentially new models for terrorist attacks against cities and towns, large or small, which could overwhelm the response capabilities of emergency services.

Yesterday the Government published its updated Counter Terrorism Strategy.  The Strategy makes clear that the structure of the threat from Al Qaeda is changing: Al Qaeda core is likely to fragment but self-starting groups will become more prominent and develop significant capabilities, including a realistic aspiration for chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons.

Today, I want to look at how the attacks in Mumbai and Lahore, and the use of high impact weapons like CBRN, compare to our current planning scenarios - why we cannot discount the possibility that these might represent new models for terrorist attacks, and how we should improve our response capabilities to cater for this tactical evolution.

<h2>Characteristics of the Mumbai and Lahore attacks</h2>

Hitherto I think that we have made one overriding assumption about what is involved in attacks perpetrated by Islamist inspired terrorists.  We have assumed that suicide is a key aspects of their attack methodology. 

But the attacks in Mumbai and Lahore were not suicide attacks.  Reports after the arrest and interrogation of the captured attacker in Mumbai indicate that the attackers did not intend to "martyr" themselves but had a return plan, and some of the attackers in Lahore ran away from the scene when confronted by the police.

What characterised these attacks was the use of small "assault teams".  These "teams" were mobile and, while moving into position, fought and killed using small firearms - weapons, pistols and hand grenades.  In other words, we saw mobile or what I would call "running" attacks.

In contrast to suicide attacks, this means that the attacks did not take place over a short period of time.  The attacks were prolonged. 

In Mumbai, they brought the city to a halt for three days as the attackers took hostages and conducted sieges of public buildings.  It is these two features of the attacks that the Indian security forces found most difficult to deal with.  They were able to regain control of sites not under siege relatively quickly, but it took days for them to regain control of sites like the Taj Mahal and Trident hotels and Jewish Centre. 

In Lahore, although the attack did not last for days, there was a running battle between the police and attackers that lasted for hours.

The use of CBRN weapons would similarly have prolonged effect.  It would bring towns and cities to a halt for a tremendously long time.

<h2>Do Mumbai and Lahore represent new models of attack?</h2>

We cannot say for certain that multi-site, mobile and prolonged terrorist attacks will be the preferred modus operandi of terrorist groups in the future.  But the possibility of Mumbai and Lahore becoming important even if not the sole models for future attacks cannot be ruled out for three reasons.

First, vulnerability.  Major cities - with their multiple points of access and transit, high population densities and open access buildings like hotels, hospitals, restaurants, cafes, offices - offer a target that is susceptible to prolonged mobile attacks.  In the case of UK cities, quite extensive protective measures have already been taken including Lord West's review of protection of crowded places.  This should have helped strengthen UK resilience against Mumbai style building sieges, though it would be a brave man or woman who would assert that no group of terrorists would try it. 

Secondly, imitation.  We know that terrorists adopt methods that are used successfully elsewhere.  We have already seen, for example, the Taliban in Afghanistan adopt tactics used by insurgents in Iraq.

Finally, evasion.  We know that terrorists actively seek to understand and counter the capabilities of our security forces.  They innovate tactically to obviate security measures and to confuse authorities.

<h2>Improving our response: lessons from 7/7</h2>

Because terrorists continually evolve their tactics and methods to exploit our vulnerabilities and counter the capabilities of our security forces, being ahead of them in planning our response to and recovery from attack is therefore very important.

To date our only experience of responding to a successful Islamist-inspired terrorist attack in the UK has been 7/7, when our emergency services had to deal with the consequences of multi-site suicide attacks.  Our recovery from 7/7 was largely good and aided by the fact - not simple, and not to be underestimated - that ordinary Londoners showed remarkable resilience and stayed calm in exceptional circumstances.  Nevertheless, there were some valuable lessons.

The Greater London Authority's review of the 7/7 attacks found that the details were not taken on the spot of many individuals caught in and wounded by the attacks. It is very important to know the names of those who have left the scene of the incident. It found that there were shortages of emergency and rescue equipment, including stretchers.  One paramedic even reported having to run to a nearby store to buy extra bandages.  Such findings are easily put right.  Some have more substantial implications.

As this Forum is particularly concerned with the critical communications challenges facing the public safety community, it is pertinent to look at those aspects of the GLA's review related to communications and interoperability within and between the various emergency services.

The Review found that police, fire and ambulance staff all used different radio systems and that there was an over-reliance on the mobile phone network.    It also found that, other than the British Transport Police, rescuers at ground level could not talk to their colleagues underground.

The London Ambulance Service came in for particular criticism.  The Review concluded: 'those on the front line were let down to varying degrees by a significant breakdown of communications within the London Ambulance Service.  Service personnel at tube stations and Tavistock Square were unable to communicate with the control room.  Requests for further ambulances, supplies and equipment did not get through.  They did not know what was happening at the other incidents. They could not receive instructions as to which hospitals were still receiving patients.  This breakdown in communications led to a failure to deploy the right numbers of ambulances to the right locations; a lack of necessary equipment and supplies at the scenes; delays in getting some of the injured to hospital; and a failure to manage strategically the despatch of ambulances from the scenes to hospitals around the city'.

As each service used different radio systems - indeed, some services even used more than one type of radio system - communication between the different emergency responders, and therefore co-ordination and command and control during the response, was also a huge challenge.

Two issues arise from these findings. The first is the simple issue of communications and the second, which is linked, is the strategic management of an attack or catastrophe.

The ability to communicate in the context of multi-site, mobile terrorist attacks is  absolutely fundamental to competent - let alone good - command and control, and therefore to strategic management of an incident.  How is a responsible Minister going to be able to deploy resources to best advantage without command of the whole picture?  How is he going to inform, let alone reassure public opinion that he has matters under control if he cannot know whether he has?  I need hardly labour the point.

With Airwave, for the first time different police forces, ambulance services and fire brigades will have the same radio system.  The same communications platform. They will be able to talk to each other in real time. This might seem like a common sense development, but its achievement has almost certainly been delayed by a related difficulty: that are few - if any - national standards for all emergency responders when it comes to equipment, command and control arrangements and exercises.  We have to get serious in this country about national standards if we are to become more efficient and effective at acceptable levels of cost.
 
This point is also relevant to natural catastrophes. The Pitt Review into the summer 2007 floods reached a similar conclusion.  It said that the ability of responders to work together during emergencies is hindered by a lack of national standards that allow interoperability.

<h2>Role of the military</h2>

But apart from the lessons that were drawn from 7/7 and the summer 2007 floods, what is our assessment of the ability of blue light services to respond to the type of mobile, and also multi-site, attacks we saw in Mumbai and Lahore?  Or to meet what CONTEST 2 calls a more realistic aspiration of terrorists for CBRN weapons?

Prolonged and mobile attacks would place a burden on the capabilities of our security and blue light services quite different to what we have seen hitherto.  It would not just be a case of simply dealing with the consequences of an attack, as was the case on 7/7.  It would be a case of meeting the terrorists head on.  The attempted attacks in 2007 came closest to this; the attackers travelled from London to Glasgow - a mobile chase, but not a mobile attack.

Many of you will have heard the response of a former head of the Special Air Service to the type of incident we saw in Mumbai.  He said that the UK does not have enough of the right type of forces in London or other major cities to deal with a Mumbai-style attach.  He said: 'Our unarmed police would be able to do very little except report in.  There would be many hours of chaos before the police, backed by the military counter-terrorist response teams were in a position to contain, let alone neutralise, the terrorist threats.  A Mumbai-style attack requires a military-type response'.  Because British armed response teams are not as numerous, well trained or equipped as they should be to deal with a fast moving and violent a scenario as that which occurred in Mumbai, he said an 'option would be to prepare the limited number of Foot Guards and Household Cavalry to be prepared to do this, which may be possible'.

And what about a CBRN attack?  While some emergency responders have been training for this possibility - the Fire Service, for example, has New Dimension equipment for this type of attack - it is the military that has developed a real body of expertise and capability in this field over many years.  It is also the military who could be deployed rapidly from other locations to the contaminate site and manage the situation.

When I chaired the Conservative Party's Security Policy Group in 2006/7, we concluded that the armed forces need to be in a position to assume an enhanced role in homeland security and resilience tasks.  This stands in contrast to the approach of the current government.  I would argue that as a result of the military's current exclusive mission in support of expeditionary intervention, support to civil authorities is not as reliably provided for as it could be at a time when threats and hazards are constantly evolving and homeland security requirements are therefore increasingly unpredictable.

When I say that the military should assume an enhanced role in homeland security and resilience, I do not mean that it should displace the primary role of civil powers in an emergency.  But the ability of the military ability to provide agile, resilient and innovative command and control in support of the civil power in unforeseen circumstances, or in circumstances in which the implementation of planned civil responses is disrupted or prevented, is increasingly important.  We have already seen this on numerous occasions - when the military were deployed to man Green Goddesses, for the Foot and Mouth crisis, and to Heathrow in response to a specific terrorist threat.

Currently, military contributions are dependent on there being sufficient numbers of personnel available who are not deployed on intervention operations abroad.  Military support to the civil power - other than in a few niche capabilities - is therefore only declaratory.  As a result, first responders find it difficult to include the military in their planning.

First responders have told me that what they need is predictable support.  I agree.  The military contribution to homeland security and resilience needs to be more structured, and that is why I have proposed two things.

First, a predictable, rather than declaratory, regular force contribution to homeland defence.  In addition to the role of Special Forces - used most visibly during the siege of the Iranian Embassy in 1980 - the Government has put in place Civil Contingency Reaction Forces which are made up of members of the reserve forces.  But the deployment times of reserves are substantially slower than those of regular forces - not sufficient when what we need is early mastery of a situation - and it is not clear that Special Forces by themselves would provide the "mass" necessary to overwhelm attackers in a mobile situation.

Secondly, I have proposed establishing a small permanent military command or headquarters for homeland defence and security.  This command would provide a single focus for operation demands on forces for homeland roles.  It would act as a point of focus for developing and delivering a coherent response with the large number of emergency services, and better facilitate joint training and exercises between the military and blue light services.

<h2>Olympic security</h2>

All that I have is given further weight by something the Government is preparing for at the moment - the Olympic Games in 2012.

To deliver effective security for the Games our emergency services, security services and the military designated to support them need to have a common operating picture, shared situational awareness, agreed command and control procedures and need to undertake joint training and exercising.

At the moment, I am concerned about two particular aspects of security planning for the Olympics relevant to today's discussion.  First, beyond certain specialist capabilities in the CBRN area, it does not seem that military support will be planned for.  I query whether in the light of Mumbai, this is right.  And, secondly, a concern I am sure the planners share - that high security around Olympic sites could simultaneously displace threats to other locations and draw in large numbers of extra forces from around the country, potentially thinning response elsewhere.  We should not fall into the trap of thinking about the Olympics as an event demanding attention only for specific venues and locations, and not having implications for the rest of the country.  We need a national demand profile that looks at the implications of the Games for security and emergency response country-wide.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

Let me conclude.

We cannot discount the possibility that the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and Lahore will become another model for attacks elsewhere, including the UK.

From 7/7 we drew numerous lessons for the emergency services, particularly regarding communications, interoperability and command and control.  But as the terrorist threat continues to evolve - and, indeed, as natural hazards increase in range and scale - and we need to be able to match them in our response.

What happened in Mumbai and Lahore would place a massive burden on all the blue light services - a burden only magnified by the aspiration of groups to use CBRN weapons.  So the ability of the police to offer top quality command and control in big incidents must be enhanced.  And there may well be extreme cases in the future where they need the support of our armed forces who must be readily available and appropriately trained.  So I have argued that we need a more structured and predictable military contribution to our homeland security and resilience.

As the country gears up for the Olympics a systematic approach to these issues becomes imperative.

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