London 2012: Celebrating a terror-free Olympics
13 August 2012
Defence analyst Anthony Tucker-Jones looks back at the counter-terrorism operations that helped keep London 2012 safe
Well it is all over - the London 2012 Olympics have ended in triumph for the UK both athletically and in terms of organisation. Team GB's overall ranking of third in the medal tables has filled the nation with justifiable pride.
It is now hard to think that the preparations got off to such a wobbly start at the beginning of the year as pre-games nerves gripped the nation. Certainly the row over the failure of security contractor G4S to provide enough security personnel and the commitment of 18,200 troops almost turned an event that is supposed to be about athletic prowess into an enormous counter-terrorism operation.
While 'vigilance' was the watchword, media coverage fuelled a sense of growing paranoia. According to MI5, although there was little credible intelligence of any major plots, the threat level remained at 'substantial' - just below 'severe'. What else could they have said?
MI5 chief Jonathan Evans warned that although the London 2012 Olympics would not be an easy target, because of all the counter-terrorism measures, they remained an "attractive target" for certain groups.
Intense cooperation between the security agencies led to a series of arrests as well as a number of highly publicised security scares.
Although the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond also reassured us that there was no 'specific' terror threat it was clear, in the face of the extensive military exercise Olympic Guardian, that there was no place for complacency.
The highly respected Royal United Services Institute fuelled the sense of unease when it warned that there was a growing threat from 'lone wolf' terrorists who were returning home from fighting in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. Self-radicalised lone wolves are much harder to detect than al-Qaida inspired jihadist cells.
Perhaps the most prominent warning to al-Qaida was denying bail to Jordanian terror suspect Abu Qatada, who has spent 10 years fighting deportation to Jordan to face terror charges. Once known as Osama bin Laden's right-hand man in Europe, he stayed in prison because of security fears during the games.
Pre-games jitters, however, were widespread. In late January, Hereford, home of the SAS was the scene of a scare. The Army's bomb disposal experts were called out to deal with a white van that was believed to have an improvised explosive device inside. Three controlled explosions were carried out, but police confirmed that nothing suspicious was found.
It had all been sparked off by a domestic dispute, which led to the van being pulled over and a man arrested on suspicion of having an offensive weapon. A device found attached to the van led to everyone fearing the worst.
Likewise, Ministry of Defence personnel were also involved in early July when a bus was stopped on the M6 toll road near Lichfield. A passenger was seen pouring liquid into a box that began smoking; the immediate thought was that it could be another shoe or underpants bomber intent on causing mayhem; it later transpired that the vapour was coming from an electronic cigarette. 'Better to be safe than sorry' became the prudent mantra.
Tensions came to a head with the arrest of 13 men from West Yorkshire, the West Midlands and London - in part the result of a routine car inspection that stumbled upon concealed firearms. Much closer to home, an Islamic terror suspect of Somali origin was banned from London's Olympic park. He breached the ban five times and was arrested to face charges.
The worry now is that after such a successful Olympics, UK counter-terrorism budgets and staffing levels could now face major cuts. The Home Office argues that the UK's counter-terrorism strategy covered the Olympics and the next three years with a £6bn commitment to security and the intelligence agencies' budgets.
Mercifully, the Olympics have once again avoided any repetition of the tragedy of 1972 when Israeli athletes were kidnapped and killed by Palestinian terrorists. The threat of some form of violence, however, never goes away.
Back in 2000, police in New Zealand accidentally uncovered a possible plot involving Afghan refugees seeking to blow up a nuclear reactor during the Sydney Olympics. A raid on human traffickers' premises led to the discovery of a map of Sydney showing access routes to the reactor. False alarm or not, such reports are sobering.
Preparations for Brazil's Rio Olympics in four years' time will have to consider every eventuality. They will have much to learn from London's experiences.