June 11, 2009

Counter-terrorism drills fall short

By James Boxell, Home Affairs Correspondent

Published: May 10 2009 22:11 | Last updated: May 10 2009 22:11

Security forces carried out only two national counter-terrorism exercises last year, down from the usual three, in spite of the “severe” state of alert about attacks in the UK and deepening fears about terrorists using chemical, biological or nuclear “dirty bombs”.

The live exercises, co-ordinated by the Home Office in co-operation with the Association of Chief Police Officers, simulate a large-scale attack and involve government departments, emergency services, the military, local councils, health providers, scientists and technical specialists.

The Home Office is committed to undertake three of the exercises every year to make sure Britain is prepared to respond to any kind of terrorist attack and that counter-terrorist arrangements are fully tested. However, in a parliamentary response to a question tabled by the Conservatives, Lord West, the security minister, disclosed that only two took place last year.

Baroness Neville-Jones, the shadow security minister and a former chairman of the joint intelligence committee, said she was “worried” by the reduction. “This smacks of complacency or false economy, or both,” she said. “No matter how overwhelmed they may feel, ministers must make sure that they always take national security seriously.”

The Conservatives claim that even three large-scale exercises each year are not sufficient to test the UK’s preparedness for a “catastrophic” attack.

The government has kept the number of exercises steady at three a year for the past decade, in spite of events such as the September 11 attacks on the US in 2001, and the bombings in London in July 2005.

Some security experts said the Home Office approach could be justified given that large-scale exercises divert security forces and police away from their day-to-day job of trying to stop attacks before they happen.

David Claridge, a terrorism specialist at Janusian Security Risk Management, said: “These things do take a lot of resources. You probably don’t want to take up too much of your time planning for catastrophic scenarios when most of the terror threat comes from more primitive devices. People will want to be thinking about intercepting attacks rather than just responding.”

The Home Office said last year’s reduction was due to a “realignment in the programme” and pointed out that many more anti-terror exercises were carried out by individual police forces, government departments and organisations such as the National Counter Terrorism Security Office, a specialist police unit.

The government warned in March that the risk of terrorists obtaining chemical, biological and nuclear weapons had increased. An update to the Home Office counter-terrorism, or “Contest”, strategy claimed that al-Qaeda had attempted to acquire these materials, known as CBRN, and made some progress. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, there has been a big rise in the trafficking of material that could be used in radiological, or possibly nuclear, weapons.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “By 2011, we will be spending £3.5bn a year on countering terrorism. In recent years the number of police personnel dedicated to counter-terrorism work has grown by over 70 per cent; the Security Service has doubled in size.”

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