The Olympics will be bringing large crowds, world leaders, and a global audience to London this summer. The Olympics have been identified as an ideal target for terrorist activity because the increased population density of London during the Olympic Games will offer greater anonymity, greater destructive power, symbolic targets, and a major media presence. Despite the significant effort the security services are making to ensure any threats during the games are identified and prevented, many people are worried about the possibility of an attack taking place. Recently some events have occurred that under normal circumstances would not raise suspicions of being related to terrorism, but as the games approach people are becoming more suspicious of one another.
Yesterday, the 5th of July, a passenger on a Megabus coach from Preston to London noticed another passenger was pouring liquid into a box, and that the box started to emit smoke. This would usually be dealt with by the coach driver using an onboard fire extinguisher, or in extreme cases perhaps the closest fire department. In this particular case a team of armed police, sniffer dogs, forensic officers, military personnel, and paramedics responded. Their response also included a decontamination tent, and resulted in the closure of part of the M6 toll road for about four hours. Once officers had arrived they determined that the source of the smoke was an electronic cigarette. Responding to false alarms such as this one results in a significant expenditure of resources and may appear unnecessary, but it is important to consider the implications of not responding to suspicious behaviour.
The other major terrorism related event that occurred yesterday was the arrest of six terrorism suspects in London. While the security services insist the suspect’s plot was unrelated to the Olympics and was not an imminent threat, it is important to consider whether this threat would have been detected had suspicion levels not been raised by the upcoming games. By the time an arrest is made the security services have gathered enough evidence to be certain that an attack is being planned, but the initial evidence that sparked their interest in the group would likely have been something small. Without knowing the specifics of their investigation it is difficult to say, but one would expect it would have been an intercepted communication or a tip by a member of the public. Initially this case could have looked very similar to the Megabus incident, and could easily have been overlooked.
There is an argument to be made that it is better to respond when a response is not necessary, than to fail to respond when a response is necessary, and as such any mildly suspicious event should warrant a response. There is some merit to this view, and it could also be argued that standards should be maintained regardless of whether or not a high profile event is approaching. Perhaps, rather than highlighting the observational powers of a suspicious public, the reaction to the false alarm highlights how passive the public can usually be about potential terrorist threats. If the Olympics were not approaching, smoke coming from a bag on a coach probably would not have resulted in a counter-terrorism response rather than a fire prevention response. It is important to consider whether being selective in which reports to respond to with a counter-terrorism measures is desirable. If the Megabus incident was overlooked, the suspects in London, or those involved in the liquid bomb plot could easily have been overlooked as well. Perhaps it is better to respond to any report with even a minimal potential for being terrorism related as a terrorist event until it can be proven to be otherwise.