Missiles! Copters!

London Cracks Down on Security for Olympic Games

Facing down fears of an attack from al Qaeda or the IRA, Brits are flexing their military muscle.

Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

As the 2012 Olympics approach, London may soon see surface-to-air missiles installed atop some of its apartment buildings, as residents learned by way of government-issued flyers earlier this year. The HMS Ocean, Great Britain’s largest warship, will be moored on the banks of the Thames for the extent of the Games. Typhoon fighter jets will patrol the skies, and Puma helicopters will be at the ready with airborne snipers. More than 13,000 British soldiers, meanwhile, will reportedly be deployed—more than the United Kingdom currently has posted in Afghanistan.

The message intended by this flexing of military muscle is clear. “All of these things say to sophisticated terrorists: London is expecting you. London is prepared,” says Patrick Mercer, a member of Parliament and former chairman of the government’s sub-committee on counter-terrorism. “Don’t try it.”

When London hosts the Summer Olympics from July 27 to August 12, the U.K. will roll out the largest peacetime security operation the country has ever seen. On top of the overt military presence, more than 20,000 private security guards will be on hand to complement an already beefed-up local police force. The intensive security preparations have drawn a number of concerns: that a residential building is no place for a missile system; that the large-scale police presence will exacerbate community tensions; that the budget for security, which now stands at $875 million, has already doubled from initial plans; and that the security operation will end up overshadowing the games themselves. Even Prime Minister David Cameron has given voice to the concerns. “I am determined that this will feel like a sporting event with a very serious security operation rather than a security operation with a really serious sporting event,” he said during a visit by the top Olympic official in March.

The subject of security promised to be front and center for the 2012 Olympics from the start. Margaret Gilmore, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, notes that while the games are always a high-profile terrorist target, these are the first in a post-9/11 world to be hosted in a Western capital considered a primary focus for groups like al Qaeda. Memories are still fresh from the last terrorist attacks in the city, a series of coordinated suicide bombings on subways and a bus by homegrown Islamist radicals—which took place on July 7, 2005, the day after London was awarded the 2012 Olympics. Security experts believe that the Irish Republican Army, which has carried out a string of attacks in Northern Ireland in recent years, may also be targeting the games, while so-called “lone wolf” terrorists in the mold of Norwegian gunman Anders Breivik form another pressing concern. “The al Qaeda connection combined with everything else makes the level of the threat unprecedented,” Gilmore says.

Last week, seven people were arrested in London over what police said was a possible terror plot by Islamic extremists, including three brothers at a house within a mile of the Olympic stadium—though police insisted the plot had nothing to do wtih the games. Another seven men in Yorkshire, meanwhile, were arrested after arms were uncovered at a routine car stop. But it was a false alarm that may have given the best insight into Britain's terrorism fears. Seventeen cars of armed police and bomb-disposal teams were marshalled, and a major motorway shut down for more than four hours, after a passenger on a stage coach reported suspicious smoke coming from another passenger's bag—which turned out to be just an electronic cigarette.

Addressing reporters in London last month, Jonathan Evans, the head of Britain’s domestic security service, MI5, gave a sobering assessment of the security situation for the games. “The national threat level at present is assessed to be substantial—meaning that an attack is a strong possibility,” he said, though he noted that the threat level was a notch lower than it had been for much of the past decade. “No doubt some terrorist networks have thought about whether they could pull off an attack.”

In the face of such diverse and nuanced threats, the brute force of missiles and battleships may be of little practical use, other than as a show of strength to would-be attackers. (Mercer says that allowing word of the rooftop missiles to get out was an “extremely savvy” move.) Like many analysts, Peter Felstead, the editor of HIS’s Jane’s Defence Weekly, points out that firing a missile in a city of more than 7.5 million might prove unwise. “Systems like that are going to be a very limited use against a credible threat,” he says. “We’re looking at an overt display of security, when the really serious stuff is going on under the surface. It’s an intelligence battle.”

The most successful aspects of the security operation, Felstead adds, will be the ones about which “you hear absolutely nothing.”

London already has more CCTV security cameras than any city in the world, and a massive intelligence operation has long been underway. In his remarks, Evans, the MI5 chief, pointed to a RUSI study identifying 43 potential plots or serious incidents in the country since September 11, 2001. “The fact that we have disrupted multiple terrorist plots here and abroad in recent years demonstrates that the U.K. as a whole is not an easy target for terrorism,” he said. Experts say the level of cooperation between Britain’s security agencies has been unprecedented, and Evans also noted that foreign countries have been “extremely generous” in assisting with the games. The FBI and CIA, for example, have set up a special unit for Olympic security.

Gilmore, the RUSI analyst, says that the Olympics have brought the country’s intelligence resources out in full force. “They’ve put in a lot of security, and worked out a lot of methods. And they are watching. They’re watching big-time,” she says. “All of the big plots in the last few years they’ve stopped, and they’ve stopped at a fairly late stage and arrested people.”

Gilmore and others caution, however, that while groups such as al Qaeda and the IRA may be effectively monitored, the nature of modern terrorism makes it impossible for even the most comprehensive intelligence operation to fully guard against all threats—and especially against the kind solitary actors who have taken to the international stage of late in the form of people like Norway’s Breivik or the French gunman Mohamed Merah, who killed seven people in Toulouse earlier this year. As Andy Redhead, a security expert with Sec Tech UK Limited, puts it: “What does a terrorist look like? If we knew that, we could deal with it.”

Redhead spent 20 years with London’s Metropolitan police force, and he says that the sprawling security apparatus that will be descending on London this month should itself be a cause for concern. “You’re going to have thousands of private contractors, then the police, then plainclothes officers, then secret service—there are so many layers in there that command and control becomes a major issue,” he says. “You’ve got tens of thousands of security personnel converging on London. It’s cost an arm and a leg. Everyone’s just praying that it goes off peacefully.”