FIRE’s Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett looks at mounting evidence that terrorists are keen to target the emergency services
The piece of paper must have looked harmless on superficial analysis. It would have been easy to dismiss it as the harmless scribblings of a teenager. But more detailed analysis showed its content was more serious. Amongst other thoughts it contained a single line that read ‘target the emergency services’.
The words had been written by a 17-year-old boy from Wales. His name is Lloyd Gunton. He is a white western male; someone who had converted to Islam. His planned attack on a music concert was one of many prevented by diligent work by the security services in 2018.
His initial target had redolent echoes of the attack on the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. Lloyd Gunton had researched the security arrangements for an up-coming Justin Bieber concert at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on June 30. This was one of many locations that Lloyd Gunton had studied across Cardiff. His arrest came “hours” before he was due to carry out an attack using a vehicle after he posted material of social media that alarmed the security services.
The password to his social media account was ‘truck attack’. His internet research history included searches for an ‘ISIS beheading video’ and ‘what does getting shot feel like?’ In one post on June 30, he stated: ‘May Allah bring terrorism to Cardiff’. In his trial he was found guilty and sentenced to serve a minimum term of 11 years in prison.
He came to the attention of the security services after uploading material onto Instagram in late June 2017; a move that was to bring his downfall. His aim, in some respects, was to repeat the attack undertaken by Salman Abedi on May 22, 2017 which saw 22 people killed and over 800 injured, of which 139 were hospitalised.
Without doubt if he had not posted the material in all probability the attack would have been successful. There are people alive today who attended that concert who simply have no idea how close they came to being a victim of another act of terrorism in the United Kingdom.
Manchester Arena Response
The response of the emergency services to the Manchester Arena attack has received, to put it mildly, a cross-section of reviews. Many on social media have praised the three paramedics from the North West Ambulance Service and officers from British Transport Police who immediately deployed to the scene.
The response of the Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service to the incident has, however, received less favourable reviews. The decision for them to move away from the scene has been heavily criticised, largely by members of the public that fail to grasp the complexities of the decision making and duty of care that commanders in the emergency services carry towards their staff.
With some in the command hierarchy that night believing a marauding firearms attack was in progress, commanders in the Great Manchester Fire and Rescue Service chose to follow their tried and tested procedures and leave the police firearms teams to deal with the incident. Once the area had been declared safe, they would then move forward to help those injured. This resulted in a delay of nearly two hours before firefighters, with appropriate medical aid (such as tourniquet packs) arrived to help those who had survived the attack.
This delay has been mirrored in many exercises that have been carried out across the United Kingdom. Those responding to an incident need to be cautious as to when a terrorist, who has activated a device, might then activate a secondary attack; first responders to the initial incident need to exercise caution.
Their decision making at this point needs to factor in possibilities that the first attack is simply creating a situation where the responding emergency services can be targeted. Against this one overriding factor has to be considered the ‘golden hour’ – the point at which the life expectancy of those seriously injured in an attack decreases dramatically.
For the emergency services the challenge is to deploy safely to a scene within an hour and attend the casualties. Lives are in grave danger at this moment. It is fair to say at this moment that no realistic exercise in the United Kingdom has seen a response that matches the need to deploy quickly into a scene. This is an issue that requires urgent attention given the increasingly worrying trends in tactics being used by terrorists associated with Muslim extremism.
“Those that can still command as such events unfold are amazing people”
Targeting Emergency Responders
For anyone doubting terrorists’ intent in this regard need to look at the attack that took place on Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo in the Philippines during the early-morning service on January 27, 2019, which is instructive. The initial bomb that detonated inside the cathedral was quickly followed by a secondary device that targeted the response of nearby members of the army. Fourteen of the 20 that died were civilians. The remaining six were members of the security forces.
With only 12 seconds between the two bombs the dead toll of at least 20 was reduced. If it had been longer more members of the emergency services would have been killed. Evidence to date does not suggest a suicide bombing. It appears the bombs where detonated remotely by mobile phone
Ironically, only days before local people had voted en-masse to adopt greater political autonomy for the region that had suffered from a Muslim extremism-based insurgency for many years that had cost hundreds of lives. It appears that so-called Islamic State carried out the attack, no doubt worried by an outbreak of democracy in one of their so-called provinces (Wilayah, from the Arabic w-l-y ‘to govern’) they are creating across the world.
Interest in targeting the emergency services is not a recent development. In attacks conducted across Syria and Iraq when so-called Islamic State operated numerous examples of such tactics targeting emergency responders can be found. In Europe a specific example illustrates how these tactics can migrate from the battlefields in the Middle East.
Evidence obtained from the mobile phone of Salaam Abedi – the coordinator of the Paris attack in November 2015 – showed that he too was planning a follow-up attack. This was to include attacks on the emergency services.
The adoption of such tactics make sense to terrorists. Any way the response of the emergency services can be hampered by indecision, command inertia or direct attack will see the casualty count increase. This creates a huge dilemma for commanders in the emergency services.
How do they deploy anyone when there is such uncertainty? They do, after all, have a duty of care to their subordinates. And as recent investigations show, those who do deploy people into situations and members of the emergency services die, the repercussions for those commanders can be profound; as those involved in the Atherton-on-Stour incident will attest.
The answer to this question of decision making is not easy. On the one hand it is axiomatic that delay will cause people caught up in the attack to die. More people will be wounded if a marauding attack involving semi-automatic weapons, person-worn bombs or knives is underway. The ‘golden hour’ does not go away.
But set against that is the risk to the first responders. Can they be deployed? When is the attack over? Have the terrorists left behind a device that will suddenly detonate? Is the area in which members of the emergency services are about to be deployed secure?
Combating Command Inertia
The glib answer to these issues is that ‘it depends on the circumstances’. What commanders need to do is to practice in desk-top environments and in real-life exercises what these dilemmas might look like. The desk-top environment can be used to test a wide range of scenarios and tactics used by terrorists. It can be a good place for commanders to make themselves aware of the issue involved and the range of tactics they may face. That of itself builds resilience.
The desk-top exercises should be used to develop the occasional real-world exercise. That should contain testing elements of the tactics that are emerging and readily forecast with simple horizon-scanning techniques. Those who chose to set exercises to ensure they pass the exam question are not doing anyone any favours. The exercise is where lessons need to be learnt, not in the aftermath of a successful attack where many have been killed and others have suffered life-changing injuries.
Through this and thinking about the nature of questions that need to be asked, and through rigorous testing of the command, control and communications infrastructure in real-world exercises, resilience can be built steadily. Of course, on a bad day commanders may feel overwhelmed.
That is what terrorism is all about; it is about trying to create command inertia. Those that can still command as such events unfold are amazing people. They can see through the ‘fog’ of the situation, ask important questions and test the answers they are given. From that decisions that will inevitably save lives can be quickly developed.
In a world where the logical aim of terrorists is to kill as many people as they can, the tactic of targeting the emergency services is an obvious development. Unless this is regularly practiced and the dilemmas this creates exercised both in the classroom and in real-world simulations of attacks, the emergency services will not be prepared. That is not a position anyone looking at the current threat from terrorists should think is acceptable. It is also not what the public expect.