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Pre-Incident Indicators

Recently, there have been a number of significant terrorism-related arrests in Britain. The most recent, in Forest Gate (London), included one of the suspects being shot, though not killed. Two young men of Bangladeshi origin were arrested, and a viable chemical bomb was recovered. The two men have no known links to Al Qaeda but had gone further than just planning an act of terrorism in Britain. The reason these men were arrested is down to the main weapon that we have in the war on terrorism—intelligence.

In the question of defeating terrorism, intelligence is the answer. Nearly 40 years of conflict against the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), has proved that to the British security forces. Where possible, informants are placed inside the organization, and surveillance is conducted in many and varied ways. The counterintelligence operations carried out by PIRA were at a very high level, and therefore, the task of gathering counter-terrorist intelligence was never easy.

However, all that time spent in trial and error has led to many robust techniques being employed against the threat from international terrorism, not the least of which is the power of the community. It was not until the communities of Northern Ireland stood together against the terrorists that effective, frequent intelligence could be gathered. Likewise with the current threat, it will not be until the communities are united against terrorism that the intelligence flow will become a torrent. This is the key.

The intelligence gained from communities will be looked at in a future article. For now, I will outline how our officers can help contribute more effectively to the intelligence picture.

Patrol officers to need to be given training in terrorism techniques, bomb construction, procurement and production of homemade explosives and particularly hostile reconnaissance. Exercise Vigilant, which I designed and which has run successfully in Hertfordshire Constabulary for two and half years, does this. It is vital that officers can recognize the sort of activity that can amount to fundraising, planning and preparation, etc.

During this exercise patrol, officers spend 36 hours acting as terrorist cells, planning an attack on a local target. This allows the officers to actually experience how it may feel to be a terrorist working in a vigilant country that has CCTV in most public places. The considerations they have to make during the exercise planning phase help them understand how the terrorist might act, and more important for us, how the terrorist might look, and thereby be identified during the planning stage.

Some of the considerations the officers have to make and plan for are given to them during the briefing for the exercise, and the answers are tested during the presentations and de-brief. Here is an example of the detail the officers are asked to plan during the briefing:

You are an Active Service Unit (ASU), the security forces and intelligence services will have an element of intelligence on your activities. They may know who you are! They may know your target! They may have you under surveillance! Where are you going to live? How will you communicate with one another? Do you want to be seen together? To meet in public? What is your cover story if you are challenged?

Do you have documentation to back up your cover? False identities? What equipment do you require? Weapons? Ammunition? Bomb-making equipment? Raw materials? Precursor materials? Are you part of a larger organization that will supply a complete IED that will be delivered by courier? Is it a vehicle-borne device? How will it be handed over? Will it be a security forces ambush? Who can you trust?

The target: What can you find out about it? Security? Physical? Covert? Cameras? Patrols? Routines? Search awareness? Routes in/out? RVs? Emergency plans if discovered—on way in on way out? The post attack: Escape routes? Removal of forensic from your accommodation/vehicles, etc.? What plans have you made for the disposal of weapons and equipment? Your control measures? Do you have abort attack plans? Contingency plans for failure of equipment?

As can be seen, there is a great level of detail that has to be presented to other officers. At the conclusion of this phase, the officers come together and give a formal briefing to the remainder of the course on how they would conduct their attack.

Usually three different terrorist ideologies and three different methods of attack are used in the exercise. For example, international terrorism, Irish-related terrorism and domestic extremism, i.e., animal-rights activists. The attack methods will vary but usually include a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED), a person-borne improvised explosive device (PBIED) and a mortar attack. Suicide attacks are not usually used as scenarios as they require less work to plan, particularly in the escape phase!

The main learning from the exercise then can take place as officers start to recognize the areas where their plans are open to disruption by police and security services. After an average of three attack presentations, the lessons are firmly entrenched. This has led to an increase in intelligence reports of suspicious activity being reported by officers.

Examples of the activities our officers now recognize as being possible indicators of hostile reconnaissance are common to terrorists around the world and apply equally as well to the United States as they do to the UK.

These include:

1) Significant interest being taken in the outsides of buildings, particularly delivery areas and parking lots, entrances, doors, gates and access controlled areas.

2) People photographing or taking notes on the security measures in place.

3) Groups of individuals taking interest in CCTV cameras or other controlled locations.

4) Activity inconsistent with the nature of the location.

5) Unusual activity by contractors’ vehicles.

6) Vehicles parked outside buildings or other facilities with one or more persons inside, for longer than would seem usual.

7) The same vehicle and different people or the same people and different vehicles returning to the same locations.

8) And the same or similar people returning to carry out the same or a similar activity.

Obviously, many of these activities can have an innocent purpose. However, if we are not identifying them and checking them, we may well be missing an ideal opportunity to gain valuable intelligence to help in the war on terrorism. In the next issue, we will consider how to gain the help of our communities and business partners.

Jim Dowle has worked as an operational police officer for 16 years, with a tactical firearms team, as a close protection officer and as sniper for more than 10 years. He is now working as a trainer at the Force Headquarters. His department borders the north of London and has about 3,900 employees. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2006

Rating : 9.0

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