Why we need to stay alert to the terror threat as the UK reopens

Why we need to stay alert to the terror threat as the UK reopens

The UK has faced a persistent threat from terrorism over the past decade, with recent attacks focusing on busy public spaces. In June 2020, this threat was highlighted once again by an attack in a public park in Reading. This was the first reported terrorist event in the UK since the beginning of the pandemic.

Until recently, the coronavirus had reduced opportunities for terrorism. The lockdown had seen UK high streets and public spaces almost deserted, with most non-essential businesses forced to close, lowering the number of potential terrorist targets.

However, lockdown and social distancing measures are now being relaxed, and the government is promoting greater use of open public spaces to try to kickstart the economy while keeping transmission of the virus low. Earlier this month, it announced new laws to relax outdoor drinking and dining rules. Bars, cafes, restaurants and entertainment venues can apply more easily for “pavement licences” to place tables and chairs in public spaces outside their premises.

While this response is likely to benefit businesses and the economy, there’s a real risk these new outdoor arrangements may become attractive targets for terrorists. The UK’s recovery strategy mentions redesigning public spaces to make them “secure”, but only focuses on the risk of the virus itself. Security also needs to take into consideration the threat posed by terrorism.

Rather than relying on improvised explosive devices or firearms, recent terror attacks have often been “low-tech”, requiring very little planning and featuring weapons that are easily accessible. For example, vehicles were used as weapons by driving them into crowded spaces in attacks in London, Barcelona, Berlin and Nice over the past few years.

The challenges of disrupting terrorist plots involving vehicles are considerable. Vehicles are common, inexpensive to obtain and easy to manoeuvre towards crowds. This attack method is likely to pose the greatest threat during the COVID-19 recovery.

Protecting public spaces

The government’s new strategy highlights that the risk of infection outside is significantly lower than inside, which encourages people to use outdoor public spaces more. It’s too early to know exactly what public spaces surrounding businesses will look like, but it’s clear businesses will be making greater use of the open space around them.

For instance, shops have implemented queuing systems outside to prevent too many customers entering at the same time. And bars, cafes and restaurants will expand outside of their premises and use public spaces to set up tables and chairs for serving food and drink, supported by the government’s relaxing of planning restrictions.

As well as being able to more easily get a pavement licence, “pubs and restaurants will be able to use car parks and terraces as dining and drinking areas, using their existing seating licenses,” the government advice states. It adds: “Proposed planning freedoms will mean that outdoor markets, pop-up car-boot sales or summer fairs will not need a planning application, which will transform the way people shop and socialise.”

As alfresco dining and shopping areas become the norm, businesses, local authorities and security professionals need to plan carefully how these areas can be protected from terrorist threats. The location of tables and chairs, their direction and positioning, and the length of queues all need to be considered and appropriately managed. What additional protection might be needed – if any – will also need to be contemplated, and this should form part of a business’s overall risk assessment.

Police counter terrorism security advisers may recommend that local authorities and businesses introduce hostile vehicle mitigation (HVM) measures to protect spaces where tables, chairs and queues are likely to be. HVM measures are structures that are specifically designed to stop vehicle-based attacks. Traditional examples include bollards and security barriers.

Traditional HVM measures protecting the pavement on London Bridge.
Author provided

However, local authorities and security professionals can get creative in how they protect areas too. Street furniture such as artwork, benches, cycle racks or planters can all be used as HVM measures, as can trees, landscaping, water features or ditches. However, landscaping may not be suitable for some urban public spaces due to development restrictions.

Policymakers, security professionals and local authorities will need to work with businesses to manage this security challenge. Crucially, it’s important that businesses and local authorities know where to go to obtain protective security advice. The Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure and police counter terrorism security advisers are two key sources that should be consulted.

The terrorist threat has not dissipated during the pandemic. Public spaces remain an attractive target. The current UK terrorism threat level is substantial, meaning an attack is likely. While it’s acknowledged that any protective security needs to be proportionate to the threats faced, and carefully planned to avoid unnecessarily alarming the public, a balanced approach that takes all risks into account is needed.

The Conversation

Alasdair Booth does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.