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London police ‘playing catch-up’ in fight against terror

London’s police service this week launched temporary anti-terror road nets laced with metal spikes. (Metropolitan Police)
LONDON: A raft of new measures to fight terror on the streets of the UK capital has likely arrived too late, as potential attackers are already one step ahead of the authorities, analysts warn.
London’s Metropolitan Police service has in recent days unveiled plans to use steel-spiked mats and drones to protect citizens, following a string of terrorist attacks earlier this year.
“These approaches, and others, reflect the fact that counterterrorism is playing catch-up to the innovative tactics increasingly deployed by terrorists,” said Jon Coaffee, professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick, whose research focuses on the impact of terrorism on urban areas.
The Metropolitan Police this week launched new temporary anti-terror road nets consisting of tungsten metal spikes at the Naval Association Parade on Whitehall. The nets — called talon by the police — aim to prevent terrorists using vehicles as weapons, as seen in recent attacks in Barcelona and London.
If the vehicle fails to stop and drives over the net, the spikes puncture the vehicle’s tires and the front wheels become tangled up in the netting, drawing the truck or car to a stop.
The nets can be quickly set up, dismantled and moved between locations. According to the police, they can stop a vehicle of up to 17 tons. The nets will be deployed at events where large crowds are expected.
While the mats offer protection at specific events, they will not deter all attacks, commentators said.
“What we have seen in the (recent) attacks is unpredictable,” said Chris Phillips, security consultant and a former senior police officer with counterterrorism expertise.
“(But if) of course someone decides to go onto the pavement of Westminster, you not going to necessarily going to have the spikes everywhere; you can’t put them across pavements for a start — people will trip over them.
“The reality is there is nothing you can do to protect every pavement.”
Hamed El-Sa’id, professor of international business and political economy at Manchester Metropolitan University, said terrorists’ tactics are constantly evolving, making it hard to second-guess their next move.
“The problem is that terrorism is not static nor it is inflexible,” said El-Sa’id.
“Terrorists are rational individuals who change and select targets based on our responses and vulnerabilities. For example, following the 9/11 attacks, airport security improved tremendously, which caused the terrorists to shift (to) softer targets,” he said.
It is an “impossibility” to protect everything, said Phillips, but you can do the best to build in protective security into infrastructure.
King’s Cross train station in north London is one example of a building that already has built-in security, with a series of bollards and barriers preventing vehicles getting close to it, Phillips said. “(It) takes long-term planning. But you definitely start with the most iconic sites — the most likely to be targeted,” he said.
Peter Lehr, lecturer in terrorism studies at the University of St. Andrews, said that while spiked mats will not stop marauding attackers armed with knives or guns or a suicide bomber, they could make any attempt to replicate the horrors seen in Barcelona in August or Nice last year — where vehicles were used to mow people down — far less lethal.
“These spiked road mats are a welcome addition to our defences against terrorism — as are low-tech defences such as … bollards, metal railings, concrete flower pots, and high-tech defenses such as various scanner systems or smart CCTV systems,” Lehr said.
Alongside protective measures, El-Sa’id wants to see further police efforts to prevent attacks being attempted in the first place. “No police (force) will be able to protect all soft targets all the time or at the same time, and some new soft targets develop always. Of course this is not to undermine what the Met is trying to do.
“But the key lies in not only protecting but also in preventing. We have seen that most of the terrorists who committed recent attacks in the UK were known to the police and the public.”
Following the announcement of the steel-spiked mats, the Metropolitan Police also revealed plans to trial the use of a drone for eight weeks. The drone will be used to help police track suspects, missing people or hunt for weapons, according to a statement on Sept. 11. Drones have advantages over police helicopters in that they are smaller and can operate in severe weather conditions as well as indoors.
The announcement comes as fears grow that terrorist groups might themselves employ the use of drones in a potential attack.
The police force is also planning to build a £50 million ($66.3 million) complex in east London, where armed police can hone their shooting techniques and receive specialist counterterrorism training, according to the Evening Standard newspaper.
The Metropolitan Police did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by Arab News.