Security at the Olympic games: MI5 gets ready for the starter’s gun
THE clock counting down the minutes to the 2012 London Olympics in the foyer of the riverside headquarters of MI5 is a reminder that the agency is preparing for what one source calls “a monstrous challenge in terms of scale and speed”. Nearly all leave has been cancelled for that summer. Not surprisingly: it will be the first time that an Olympics has been held in a country where there is considered to be a high threat of terrorist attack. Only a few weeks ago, seven people from Birmingham were charged with terrorist offences.
Other agencies, not least the police, share responsibility for the security of the games. As well as terrorism, the authorities have identified public disorder, crime and “non-malicious hazards” (anything from summer flooding to an epidemic of infectious disease) as threats to their smooth running. But it is the magnet of the Olympics as the backdrop for a terrorist “spectacular”, or a series of smaller attacks, that is most dreaded, and which it is above all the job of MI5 to identify and disrupt.
The sheer size of the games is daunting. There will be teams from 205 countries, at least 120 heads of state and 50,000 journalists. Over 10m tickets will have been sold (including nearly 2m for the Paralympics) for events at 34 sites around the country. The activities stretch over most of the summer, from a ten-week torch relay beginning on May 19th to the closing ceremony of the Paralympics on September 9th.
Nor is it only the official venues that will require protection: hundreds of parallel events will attract large crowds, such as televised screenings in London parks. As well as taking the lead on counter-terrorism, MI5 is expected to provide daily briefings for its counterparts from other countries, and to ensure that none of the hundreds of thousands of accredited volunteer helpers is a security risk.
There are four main types of threat that MI5 is on the lookout for. Three of them are “business as usual” for the service: organised plots hatched by al-Qaeda or affiliated jihadist groups; an individual with an Islamist background intent on carrying out a “lone wolf” attack; an attempt by a rogue Irish republican group to do something attention-getting on the mainland. The fourth is an “imported problem”—dissident groups from other countries who see an opportunity to strike at the head of a hated government while he is in London.
At present, it seems MI5 has no credible and specific intelligence about any planned attack during the games, though al-Qaeda has been trying without success to pull off another spectacular since the London bombings on July 7th 2005. Of the four main threats, it is the lone individual, self-radicalised on the internet and with no suspicious contacts or record of activism, who is the hardest to identify and deal with: organised networks are vulnerable to penetration. And since the destructive rampage of Anders Behring Breivik in Norway that left nearly 80 people dead, it is no longer assumed that such a person may be capable of doing only limited harm.
As the games draw closer, MI5 expects the number of intelligence leads to start mounting steeply, partly because other agencies will begin passing on “stuff” that they might normally ignore or filter. Even though most of the incoming intelligence may well be what is known as CRAPINT, the service is preparing to handle unprecedented volumes of material through a new sort of “leads triage” to determine priorities quickly. Big investments have been made in upgrading computer systems to speed up the processing of intelligence and the decisions that flow from it. The balance between gathering evidence for an arrest and acting promptly to disrupt a dangerous-looking plot will swing firmly towards the latter during the Olympics.
With seven years to prepare and an overall security budget for the games of £600m, MI5 is confident that it is as ready as it can be, and so too are the police and other agencies with which it works closely. But terrorists have also had seven years to refine their plans and, as the service wearily says, not every threat can be stopped.