Earlier this week the British media was in a tizzy over a BBC story that some British police were getting military style training with automatic weapons to deal with a Mumbai-style assault on a UK urban centre.
The alleged existence of such a plot is, of course, why the US government warned its citizens not to go to Europe and why the British government warned its citizens not to go to France and why the French government warned its citizens not to go to the United Kingdom (actually, in the latter case, the warning came supposedly in retaliation for the British warning about travelling to France: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose). There’s also a suggestion that the warnings conveniently provided a justification for even more drone attacks being carried out in Pakistan by the Obama administration.
Whatever the background, a Mumbai-style attack would be a dangerous development. As Mumbai showed, such an assault with small mobile groups coordinated by mobile phones moving around and randomly killing is very difficult to respond to and to contain and can provoke widespread chaos in an urban setting. Hence, the concern of counter-terrorism officials in their never ending search for what new form of innovation might come through the terrorism pipeline catching them unaware.
The problem with the story from the past week is a. it really isn’t terribly new and b. fails to distinguish between aspiration and preparation and likelihood.
The first story about British concern and preparation for a Mumbai attack did not occur this past week but in December 2008. At the time, a story in the Independent made it clear that authorities were already contemplating the possibility of a Mumbai-style attack within the UK and how to respond to it. One suggestion was that a rapid response force composed of both the police and military be created.
In December 2009, the Times reported that a senior detective from SO15, otherwise know as Counter Terrorism Command, told a briefing to business that Mumbai is coming to London.” This was followed by a June 2010 report that al-Qaeda was actively grooming Muslims for a Mumbai-style attack within the UK. And then we had the warnings for Americans at the start of this month.
Then there is aspiration versus likelihood. Clearly, there are terrorists, in particular those with some affiliation to al-Qaeda, who wouldn’t mind carrying a Mumbai-style attack in the UK. In some ways that choice is a sign of weakness on the part of al-Qaeda for although an attack like Mumbai would no doubt be deadly, socially divisive and garner international attention, it hardly would be the equivalent of 9/11 and would be further evidence of al-Qaeda’s declining ability to mount anything approaching the scale of what it did almost ten years ago.
The more pertinent question is how likely is the occurrence of such an attack? This is where reality enters the equation. For even if there are teams of terrorists who are ideologically committed enough to take to the streets of the UK, in what amounts to suicide missions, in order to randomly kill whomever they encounter, including children, where will their firearms come from? Such attacks would require numerous automatic weapons and handguns with considerable ammunition and possibly grenades. The UK has very strict gun laws which are one of the reasons why gun crimes are relatively rare and the major concern remains violence inflicted through the blade of a knife.
In the case of Mumbai, the attackers came from Pakistan with their weapons. Where would similar attackers travel from if they were unable to acquire weapons within the UK? Undoubtedly, there has been “chatter” on the part of terrorists about carrying out such attacks and this may have prompted the warnings. But aspiration is not the same as preparation nor does it make a real attack likely. It does, however, make for colourful headlines in newspapers.