Londoners adjusting to heavy Olympics police presence
'The dog you haven't seen may turn out to be the one that bites you,' says MI5 agency head in reference to high security precautions
By Tracy Watson
LONDON — As Britain counts down to the arrival of the Olympics in 15 days, Games officials seem to have almost everything firmly under control. The venues are ready. Preparations for the Games are on time and under budget. A threatened bus drivers strike seems likely to have been averted.
Still, there are uncomfortable reminders of the challenge posed by the biggest and most important task of them all: ensuring the safety of athletes and fans during an age of international terrorism.
Last week, three men were arrested on terrorism charges at a house a mile from London's Olympic Park. On Saturday, police made a related arrest in a neighborhood bordering the park. And a man who attended a terrorist training camp with links to al-Qaeda was arrested in June for violating orders to stay away from Olympic Park, according to the Sunday Telegraph.
No specific threats to the Games are known, and none of those arrested is known to have plotted to disrupt the Olympics. Yet these recent incidents illustrate the magnitude of the task of guarding against terrorists, who surely dream of making a high-profile splash during a Games.
"The Games present an attractive target for our enemies," Jonathan Evans, head of Britain's MI5 intelligence agency, warned last month.
"There is no such thing as guaranteed security. The dog you haven't seen may turn out to be the one that bites you."
No U.S.-based Olympics has faced as many threats as London's faces, from Irish splinter groups to lone-wolf suicide bombers, say terrorism experts such as David Tubbs, a former FBI official who helped coordinate security for the Salt Lake City and Athens Games.
In response, officials have drawn up a sweeping plan to safeguard the Games, which run from July27 to Aug.12. Nearly a decade in the making, the security campaign will be the largest ever mounted in peacetime, complete with fighter jets, frogmen and surface-to-air missiles mounted on apartment buildings near Olympic Park.
Homegrown terror threat
While security planners worry about terrorists, they must also respect attitudes in a country where most police officers are unarmed, uniformed troops are a rare sight, and a gun death makes headlines.
Public sensitivities were not nearly so acute in Beijing, home of the 2008 Games, or Athens, host in 2004.
There's a "challenge (to) delivering the right level of security," said London organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe, who won four medals in track and field in the 1980 and 1984 Games. "We are not inviting people to Siege City."
Coe's message has not entirely gotten through to the British public, judging by Britain's irreverent humorists.
"We thought we were signing up for the Olympic Games," comedian Paul Merton said on a popular BBC TV show this year. "But we signed up to live in North Korea instead."
It's not a joking matter to the British government.
Neither military leaders nor Olympics organizers care to see a repeat of the 1972 Munich Games, where 11 Israeli athletes were killed after being taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists, or the 1996 Atlanta Games, when a bomb killed one person and injured more than 100. So officials in Britain, which has one of the world's most sophisticated intelligence operations, have prepared strategies for every eventuality, from cyberattack to biological and chemical weapons to protests.
Homegrown terrorism remains a major concern after the so-called 7/7 attack in 2005. The coordinated bomb blasts on London's mass transit system killed 52 people and injured nearly 800 one day after the city was awarded the 2012 Games. Four suicide bombers responsible for the 7/7 carnage grew up in Britain.
Last week, police arrested 14 people in counterterror sweeps, including the four arrested close to Olympic Park. Police said the arrests did not involve direct threats to the Games.
"The homegrown terror problem is a real problem for them," says Ray Mey, a former FBI counterterrorism official who helped coordinate Olympic security efforts for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and for the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. "They definitely have their hands full."
Security officials must also contend with violent Irish nationalists, who want to gain control of Northern Ireland.
One of the most unpredictable threats of all is the lone wolf, an individual or small group operating independently of the major terrorist networks, says Margaret Gilmore, an analyst at Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank. Among the high-profile lone-wolf attacks in Britain was the attempted assassination of a member of Parliament in 2010. The assailant acted on her own after watching sermons by an al-Qaeda leader. She was sentenced to life in prison.
Security at a cost
British security officials "have done a very good job," says Tubbs, a former FBI official who talks with U.S. and U.K. colleagues about security. "But in some ways they have more issues to deal with than the U.S."
To guard against the ugly possibilities, officials have put together a plan that will cost more than $2.5billion — nearly 50% more than was spent on security in Athens — and will severely stretch the country's security personnel.
More than 150 analysts at MI5 have put aside their duties to pore over intelligence that might contain evidence of a threat to the Games. Some 13,500 members of the military — more than are currently deployed in Afghanistan — have been detailed to the Olympic security effort, and the BBC reported Wednesday that another 3,500 troops might be needed.
Among the measures aimed at keeping the Games peaceful, according to the U.K. Ministry of Defense:
Typhoon fighter jets will be on duty 24 hours a day at an air base in outer London. The jets' air-to-air missiles could shoot down any passenger jets or other fast aircraft violating the no-fly zone over the city.
Royal Air Force snipers will be ready around the clock to take flight on military helicopters. As a last resort, the snipers could be ordered to shoot the pilots of hostile aircraft.
Surface-to-air missiles will be stationed atop two apartment complexes close to Olympic Stadium, where Queen Elizabeth and first lady Michelle Obama will watch the opening ceremony July27.
Nearly all of the elements of London's security strategy were part of the operations at previous Olympics. But British officials have been unusually open about their plans, even inviting the public to tour a Navy warship during its Olympic practice run on the Thames.
The flaunting of expensive hardware, officials say, is intended to give pause to those with bad intent.
"We hope when they see the capabilities we're developing (they) will be deterred," says Air Vice-Marshal Stuart Atha, a top official with the military's Olympic security effort.
Would-be terrorists might be deterred. But some Brits regard the security plans, especially the missile installations, with skepticism, annoyance or downright hostility.
"The whole thing's ridiculous, isn't it, having to do all this to put (the Olympics) on," says Peter Keeney, a vendor at Bow's outdoor flea market near one of the apartment buildings that will have missiles mounted on it. "It's supposed to be Games. And we ain't got no money. How can we pay for it?"
The rooftop-missile plan "is mad," says Omar Johns, who works at a Bow butcher shop. "Preventing attacks? It's propaganda."
A protest march in May against the Games-time deployment of surface-to-air missiles drew about 40 participants.
"It just seems like a big show of force for no reason," said Pascal Bertaud, a teacher.
Disdain for the government's plans might be a minority view, but it is rooted in the relatively low-key methods used by British law enforcement and the low profile of the military, experts say.
"There is real sensitivity to high-profile shows of military strength on the streets of the U.K.," Gilmore says.
During widespread riots in August, a fierce public debate ensued about whether to use water cannons, notes Martin Polley, a sports historian at the University of Southampton.
"In many countries, the National Guard and water cannons would've been straight in there — shoot first, ask questions later," he says.
Many experts are confident the firepower that the government has so publicly displayed will deter troublemakers. But even some sports fans have mixed feelings about the measures to protect a competition that is supposed to be a peaceful meeting among nations.
"The sports lover in me, the law-abiding citizen in me, feels comfortable," Polley says. "The critical historian in me thinks, at what point do the Games become not worthwhile, if we've got to do all this?"