Counter-Terrorism in an Olympic Year

7 February 2012

Security policymakers have placed a great deal of focus on mounting the biggest security operation to avert a terrorist threat in the coming London Olympics, while postponing much needed reform until after the Games, according to a new report from the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

Counter-Terrorism in an Olympic Year charts how UK security planners for the Olympics have been pre-occupied with the possibility of terrorist threats to the Games. However the report suggests that the appetite for a sustained level of UK counter-terrorist spending and staffing levels may well decline considerably after the Olympic Games, partly in reaction to the UK's budget pressures and, paradoxically, partly due to the success of UK counter-terrorism.

'The Games are both a help and a hindrance to UK counter-terrorism; a help because they have stimulated intense co-operation between the security agencies, but a hindrance because the shadow of the Olympics disguises the landscape for the years beyond,' writes Dr Tobias Feakin, a RUSI Senior Fellow and a fellow contributor to the report.

'As budgetary restrictions are increasingly applied across the public sector, it is almost certain that the security agencies will also have to tighten their belts... However, until the London Olympics has passed it is not yet clear exactly what shape these cuts will take across the rest of the country, especially within London.'

'There is a sense in Whitehall that major decisions are being postponed until the event has ended in August, with an overriding priority to complete the Games without major incident. After this, the changes for the various security organisations involved will be inevitable,' writes Dr Feakin.

'If the Olympics end with no major incident, this will mean that no terrorist attack has taken place since the 2007 attack on Glasgow International Airport. Therefore it is difficult to see the appetite for counter-terrorism spending and staffing levels to continue at the rates sustained throughout the 2000s. Clearly the lack of a successful attack in five years is in no small part due to the large investments and changes that have been made in the security mechanisms for countering such threat. Yet, there is a sense of inevitability that change is on its way.'

Although the death of Bin Laden began a succession of counter-terrorism victories in 2011, leading to a reduction in the threat level from 'severe' to 'substantial', the report also warns the threat from Jihadist terrorism has not diminished.

'There is very little which could justify complacency in the way we perceive the future threat from Jihadist terrorism to the UK. Although actual capabilities may have deteriorated, the intention to conduct large scale attacks on British soil remains,' argues report contributor and RUSI analyst Valentina Soria.

The study highlights recent arrests and failed plots, and explores how the picture may evolve over the coming years. Warning that the authorities must contend with 'lone wolves' and 'self-radicalised' jihadi terrorists who are hard to track and pose a greater security risk.

'The threat they pose, so far, is in the possibility that high numbers of such individuals, operating alone and unsupported, albeit in an amateur way, may nevertheless be lucky in a few attempts. They are harder to track and their behaviour much harder to predict,' writes report contributor and RUSI Director-General Professor Michael Clarke. 

The report includes analysis from RUSI Senior Research Fellow Margaret Gilmore on the overall security response for the Games, as well as General Sir Nick Parker, Commander of Land Forces who reveals the military contribution to keeping the Olympics safe and how the UK's Armed Forces will co-ordinate with overall security apparatus.

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