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Exercise Phoenix

The importance of roads for terrorists is well understood, particularly within Hertfordshire, which lies just to the north of London. The movement of large loads by road provides the terrorist with ample opportunity to transport huge amounts of explosives and equipment around the country.

The prevalence of truck stops and overnight parking facilities within the area has provided terrorists in the past, an ideal rendezvous or staging post for an attack on the nation’s capitol. The IRA lorry bomb that devastated the financial center of the city in the mid-1990s was parked overnight in a truck stop within Hertfordshire.

The targeting of the transport infrastructure within the area is well understood, as several terrorist attacks have been deterred and disrupted in the past decade. All Hertfordshire officers are aware of the high-profile nature of the several motorway interchanges in the force area, not to mention one of the largest road tunnels in Europe; the Hatfield tunnel is more than a kilometer long and has four lanes in each direction with a shopping mall on top!

One of the “prepare pillars” in the UK government’s CONTEST strategy involves Exercise Phoenix. Here is an overview of the exercise and a focus on the main lessons learned by the participants.

Exercise Phoenix focused the attention of police commanders from the whole of the southeast region on these issues. The author worked closely in the development of this exercise with the main exercise author, Chief Inspector Steve Avil of Thames Valley Police. The exercise director was Assistant Chief Constable Steve Watts of Hampshire Police.

The three different police forces represented in the planning and running of the exercise, together with the many other regional forces contributing to the planning stage, demonstrates the breadth of involvement and collaboration practiced by the UK police in counter-terrorism (CT).

Exercise Phoenix was a CT “table-top” exercise hosted by Hertfordshire Constabulary for the Combined Integrated Policing Group (CIPG). It simulated various suspicious activities occurring within the strategic roads network (SRN), identifying two stolen large goods vehicles (LGV) that were to be used as vehicle-borne improvised explosives devices (VBIED). The SRN includes all motorways and main trunk roads surrounding and serving London.

Intelligence Flow

The aim of Exercise Phoenix was to examine the information and intelligence flows between the various agencies that would be involved in a terrorist incident targeting the SRN in the southeast of England. The main objectives of the exercise were 1) to share current procedures employed by different agencies, 2) to evaluate current practices against a live, dynamic scenario and 3) to propose options and solutions to the identified gaps.

Command staff from the following UK police forces that make up the CIPG took part in the exercise: Bedfordshire Police, Cambridgeshire Constabulary, Essex Police, Thames Valley Police, Hertfordshire Constabulary, Kent Constabulary, Metropolitan Police, Sussex Police, Surrey Police and Hampshire Constabulary. Participation on the exercise from other relevant agencies within the CIPG area included, fire and rescue services, ambulance (EMS) services and the Highways Agency (HA).

Syndicate tables were made up of regional representatives of mixed agencies—the people who would have to work together during the real deal. Typically, a syndicate table would contain police commanders, fire chiefs, Highways Agency local representatives and EMS personnel. All the tables were located in one large arena with visibility of the stage and main screen.

Audio and Video Feeds

The exercise was structured to include audio, video and paper feeds in order to build the scenario, followed by a number of written questions for consideration by the syndicate. This started with a number of geographically disparate incidents, all suspicious in nature, but not obviously linked. These included the theft of petrol tankers from depots and truck stops, and vehicle passengers videoing motorway bridges and toll booths. It was designed to highlight the fact that this type of intelligence is rarely shared in an efficient way between police forces in the same region, let alone nationally.

Also, it is unlikely that this information will hardly ever reach agencies outside of the police service. Following a period of syndicate discussion, a director-led feedback session was held. This involved selected tables (regions) briefing their solutions to the floor. At the conclusion of each session, written feedback on that stage was collected from each table and entered into a final “lessons learned” presentation.

The second theme running through the exercise was a series of presentations that followed each feedback session. This was structured to educate and revise the delegates on existing CT procedures, operations and protocols. These presentations were made by specialists from the various agencies present and also by SO15 (Counter Terrorist Command).

The day went very well as the scenario built to a number of simultaneous attacks on the SRN infrastructure, testing the groups on their internal and partnership procedures. The final presentation was developed during the day. It summarized the main lessons learned by all participants, and focused on some areas for development and improvement. This was confirmed by a full de-brief a month later and a report of the findings was distributed to all participants and all UK police forces. The main findings of this report are summarized here in order to allow U.S. police forces to heed the same lessons. They will be as relevant to American commanders as they are to British commanders.

Information Sharing

Police forces can be quite “precious” about the dissemination of intelligence to outside agencies, for example the HA, particularly in relation to terrorist incidents. This can lead to the loss of intelligence and target coordination that could be achieved by having more “eyes” out there knowing what to look for.

The serious issue of security classification can be a real hindrance in a fast-moving, mobile terrorist scenario. Various Web-based applications are available via secure Internet connections that utilize message boards and operational logs capable of being accessed and updated from various locations. Commanders must balance the security of intelligence against the need for access to it to all relevant agencies during a terrorist incident.

Briefing Packages

It was highlighted that there was a need to brief the wider audience in the various CT operations that are coordinated by SO15 (CTC). Specifically, the relevant operations dealing with hostile reconnaissance around vulnerable targets and infrastructure (motorway bridges, toll booths, tunnels, interchanges, etc.) and dealing with the thefts of hazardous loads or liveried vehicles. It is vital to ensure that terrorist intelligence is reported and logged during routine work and operations (When CT is not at the forefront of everyone’s minds).

There is a need to brief other highway users on the nature of suspicious incidents in order that more activity can be reported and collated, thus building a more complete intelligence picture. A good example of this working well is Highway Watch® in the U.S.


There is a lack of knowledge of police operational protocols among the HA staff when dealing with incidents of this nature. The HA has a pivotal role in the front-line response for the SRN. Therefore, there is an identified training need in dealing with its response to VBIEDs.

Vehicle Tracking

The use of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is invaluable in the tracking of vehicles when on the move, particularly on the SRN where there are many ANPR fixed sites. Police forces are unsure how effectively they could interrogate the back-up computer systems that store the data in relation to captured images, dates, times and locations. There is an obvious need for fast time interrogation on these systems in response to a terrorist incident.

Partnership Working

The exercise enabled good networking opportunities for the agencies that do not normally interact. One delegate mentioned the most successful part of the exercise was, “Setting everyone together around the table thinking CT.”

The exercise demonstrated the value of partnership working time and again, opening lines of communication between partner agencies that do not necessarily share existing protocols. This exercise was seen by many as a first step. It was recommended that combined exercises should take place annually to practice partnership working.

It is proposed to hold a similar exercise in a year’s time to test the improved structures and processes that have been put in place. This time, however, it will involve a real-time incident being relayed across the screen by the plethora of CCTV and traffic control cameras that inhabit the SRN. It will be an ardent test of coordination and control of an armed VBIED intervention across several Force borders.

All in all, the exercise was a worthwhile first step into new territory for many of the players, who prior to the day may not have realized the significance of the contribution they may have to make to CT operations. It put faces to names for many people and broke down some perceived barriers. Best of all, it reinforced the fact that despite our differences, despite the hats we all wear, we are on the same side with the same mission—to save lives.

Jim Dowle has worked as a police officer for more than 16 years, with a tactical firearms team, as a close protection officer and as a sniper for more than 10 years. He is now a sergeant at the Force Headquarters Training Department. His counter-terrorism training course has recently won the UK National Training Award. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2008

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