Authorities have warned that the terror cell that carried out Thursday’s bombings of three crowded rush-hour Underground trains and a double-decker bus may be intact and capable of more strikes.
The threat raises troubling questions about whether Britain has a battle plan to protect its sprawling capital from concerted attack – and whether any plan could work.
London covers about 600 square miles presenting terrorists with a wide range of tempting and perhaps unprotectable targets: a vast subway system used daily by three million people; more than 5,000 pubs, many so crowded in the evenings that patrons spill out onto the sidewalks; and 30 million tourists a year, often wandering the city in large groups.
‘Our fear is of course of more attacks,’ Home Secretary Charles Clarke, the Cabinet minister responsible for law and order, said Sunday.
‘Those who carried out this terrible act may well try to carry it out again,’ Defense Secretary John Reid said, echoing that warning.
It didn’t happen after al-Qaida’s Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, or after the March 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Spain.
But authorities, warning that anything is possible, said they’re working to contain the threat by boosting police patrols, deploying more undercover officers and restricting the movements of known suspects. Some London hotels have been using electronic wands to search guests for weapons or explosives.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, are renewing a push to introduce a controversial national system of high-tech biometric ID cards.
The measures being taken or considered suggest Britain is following the lead of the United States, Israel, Russia and other countries that have responded to attacks with vows to toughen security – often with mixed success and criticism from citizens wary of greater government and police powers.
Conservative leader Michael Howard called anew Sunday for extra security measures, including the appointment of a minister of homeland security – a step Washington took after Sept. 11.
‘Obviously we must remain prepared for any eventuality. The fact that we’ve had these attacks doesn’t mean we won’t have more attacks,’ said Andy Trotter, deputy chief constable of the British Transport Police.
‘Therefore, we’re taking all necessary precautions to keep London as safe as we can,’ he said. ‘You’ll see the activities out there on the street: the high visibility policing. The undercover work you won’t see, of course. At the same time we are appealing to Londoners to assist us … by reporting anything suspicious.’
Although authorities have not ruled out the possibility that the terrorists were British rather than foreigners, Clarke said the government was tightening border security through an ‘e-borders’ system that subjects people to computer checks as they enter and leave Britain.
Yet there were few signs of a greater police presence on the streets of London, where the prevailing mood was a sense that not even a lockdown would eliminate the threat of more attacks, and that security ultimately is more about psychological reassurance than genuine protection.
‘Cities are made up of millions of soft targets. They are an impossible security problem,’ said Steve Graham, a terrorism expert. ‘On 9/11, it was the air system. In Madrid, it was the rail system. In London, it was the Tube and bus system.’