In September, country risk specialists the World Markets Research Centre, ranked London a more likely and vulnerable terrorist target than Russia, Syria or Lebanon. Research director Guy Dunn described the English capital as “the most prized target in western Europe’ and ‘probably unique in the world for the sheer number of symbolic targets it has.” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stephens agreed, saying that a terrorist attack on London is now “inevitable”. Meanwhile Assistant Commissioner David Veness, in charge of counter-terrorism, believes that an attack “is now a question of when, not if.” In other words, we’re all going to die.
But how much of what we’re told about the likelihood of a large-scale terror attack is based on specific intelligence and how much is simply a scare tactic to keep us alert? And if the ‘inevitable’ attack does come, what form is it likely to take and how well prepared are the authorities to respond to it? Isn’t it high time for Londoners to start panicking?
One thing experts are agreed on is that, if London does suffer a terrorist attack, it will be a far cry from the days of the IRA detonating a few lashed-together petards of farm stump dynamite. Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the UN, is in no doubt that “the next generation of terrorists… now understand that the way to get the world’s attention is not strapping bombs to themselves in a pizza parlour, but doing something so horrific it gets you into the Guinness Book of World Records for terrorism.” Whether Holbrooke is blaming Guinness for encouraging terrorism is unclear, but his warning is chillingly unambiguous: today’s terrorist weapon of choice is not Semtex but sarin. And that’s if we’re lucky.
The U.S. Department of Energy estimated in February 2001 that there are about 603 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (H.E.U.) and plutonium at risk of theft in Russia. That’s enough to produce almost 40,000 nuclear bombs. Ex-Manhattan Project Nobel Laureate Luiz Alvarez explains that “with modern weapons-grade uranium, the background neutron rate is so low that terrorists would have a good chance of setting off a high-yield explosion simply by dropping one half of the material onto the other half. If separated H.E.U. is at hand, even a high-school kid could make a nuclear bomb in short order.” Whether detonated by a high school kid or a member of Al-Qaeda, the effect of a medium-sized bomb in London would be the same: half the city rendered uninhabitable for a decade.
More worrying still is the fact that none of Britain’s nuclear power plants were built to withstand a deliberate aerial attack. A light aircraft being deliberately flown into Sellafield would release an estimated two million terabequerels of caesium-137 into the atmosphere; 25 times more than was released at Chernobyl.
So what is being done to protect us from this imminent threat? The NHS has gathered 30 million smallpox vaccines, and antibiotics for use in anthrax and plague attacks continue to be stockpiled. Many police forces, especially in the cities, now feature, along with kindly Crime Prevention Officers, the rather more serious new posts of Local Police Counter-Terrorism Security Advisors. All schools in England have been advised to look up terrorism guidelines via the UK Resilience website (www.ukresilience.info).
The government, while offering sensibly unhysterical advice when asked ‘Do I need a vaccination?’ (‘no’ – ditto on gas masks and stockpiling of food and water), has quietly been putting in place plans to alert office workers, particularly in the City, of imminent terror attacks through text-messages and email. When the bomb drops, the last thing you’ll hear will not be air-raid sirens but the sound of a million phones beeping out a warning to dk & cvr.
London Underground insists it has learnt lessons from the 1995 nerve-gas attack in Tokyo (‘if you have a gas attack it’s a bit like having a fire, you just get the people out’) and, thanks to false fire alarms, it has plenty of practice in evacuating stations. But Government bio-terrorism experts are said to be concerned that during the staging of last month’s chemical attack drill at Bank underground station, 77 minutes elapsed between the initial alarm and the first volunteer ‘casualty’ reaching the surface. And that was on a Sunday, with the streets cleared and all services on alert. Further un-realism was ensured by a Health and Safety ban on the firemen taking part in the drill carrying real people up the stairs, it being deemed too ‘dangerous’. Volunteers had to make their own way to ground level before being carried out.
Officially, government advice is a dry reworking of the Sixties cold war mantra. ‘Go in, stay in, tune in,’ says the Home Office. Behave normally, until something happens. You’ll know about it soon enough. Then get off the streets, turn on the television or radio and await instructions. Slightly more alarmist advice comes from fringe conspiracy theorists like the Acheson Intelligence Group, who are advising Londoners to carry gas masks at all times – the Vitrex respirator from Buck and Ryan (101 Tottenham Court Road) is the mask of choice – and to ‘practice getting it out and putting it on quickly, sometimes with your eyes closed.’
To panic or not to panic? Dr Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of St Andrews University’s Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence chooses his answer carefully: “I don’t think British society is very well prepared. The one saving grace is that there’s now so much CCTV all over. But we have to be lucky 100 per cent of the time. The terrorists only have to be lucky once.”