Limiting access to the City of London produced controversy but decreased terrorist attacks.
I had always been aware of the potential economic effects of terrorist attacks on the City and over recent years there had been some small hand-carried devices planted within the City. The most significant of these was the bombing attack on the viewing gallery of the International Stock Exchange in July of l99O. Fortunately, on that occasion there were accurate telephone warnings. Even though the code word used was unknown at the time, the City Police treated the warnings as genuine and, with the help of the Stock Exchange authorities, evacuated the building. Although there was some structural damage to the building, no one was injured. That incident received disproportionate publicity and was the first indication that PIRA was beginning to see the potential political lever they could wield by attacking the City institutions as economic key points.
Shortly before 9pm on Friday, 10th April, l992 there was a massive detonation outside the front entrance to the Baltic Exchange in the narrow street known as St Mary Axe. This was the evening after the General Election and the City was busier than normal with people celebrating, or otherwise, the Conservatives' victory in the polls. A man with an Irish accent telephoned Waterloo railway station and gave a known code word and the information that a large bomb was in a van parked outside the Stock Exchange, by the Bank of England. The location given was quite specific and these are two well-known landmark buildings standing side by side. For police the urgency was heightened by the fact that two unattended vans fitting the description given by the caller were found near the Stock Exchange. About 20 minutes later, while police were searching and evacuating that area, the massive explosion took place about a quarter of a mile away at St Mary Axe. The warning given by the terrorists appeared to be deliberately misleading. The largest terrorist bomb ever seen in the UK had devastated a huge area.
Three people were killed and over 100 seriously injured. Devastation to buildings was severe and extended over 400 metres in every direction from the seat of the explosion. Glass and other debris fell from the high-rise blocks like rain. Broken glass, ankle deep, covered the streets and more glass and loose masonry continued to fall from the buildings long after the explosion.
The sheer size of the detonation caused initial difficulties in that it was at first reported as a number of different explosions. This was no doubt caused by the sheer size of area damaged. That in turn caused some confusion in co-ordinating the emergency services' response, but was soon sorted out. The initial police response was not helped by a further coded warning of another device allegedly placed nearby. This hoax call diverted precious police resources when they were already severely stretched. One lesson learned was the importance of choosing carefully the location of the combined forward control centres for all the services. The City Police forward control was initially set up in Wormwood Street on the edge of the damaged area, whereas the fire and ambulance services, through a breakdown in communication, had set up their controls at Leadenhall Street close by the seat of the explosion. Because it was easier at the time, the poIice control moved to join them. This proved to be a mistake, especially on the Sunday when high winds made the Leadenhall site risky from falling glass and masonry.
First priority for all three services was, of course, to rescue those trapped and injured and evacuate them and everyone else from the dangerous areas. The next priority was to preserve for forensic examination what was now a huge crime scene. As it turned out, we had three murders and over 100 serious assaults, quite apart from the building damage. There was also the need to prevent looting. Banks and other valuable premises had had their doors and windows blown in. Street lighting had gone out even though, oddly enough, there were still some lights on in buildings. Burglar alarms sounded incessantly and added to the difficulties of hearing the cries of the trapped and injured, or indeed hearing warnings of falling glass or debris. Gas, electricity and water mains were all damaged, adding to the danger. The underground railway system had to be stopped for fear of damage to the system, but fortunately that fear was unfounded.
Within an hour of the explosion I stood surveying the damage with the then Lord Mayor of London, Sir Brian Jenkins. We agreed that although the scale of the devastation could not be denied, it would be wrong to let the terrorists have the propaganda benefit from the publicity. We resolved there and then that every effort would be made to have the City back to normal working on Monday after the weekend, and any public statements should emphasise that, rather than the damage caused. The strategy worked well and although scenes such as the shattered Commercial Union Building attracted worldwide TV coverage, that was offset by the emphasis on the intention of the City not to allow this setback to prevent an immediate return to normal working.
To secure the area for work by the emergency services, and to prevent looting, a police cordon was placed around the most seriously damaged area of closely packed streets about 900 metres in diameter. For this work the City Police were unstintingly supported by their MetropoIitan colleagues who were drafted in great numbers until that force had to meet its own demands when, later that night, there was another massive terrorist explosion at Staples Corner in North London.
Protecting such a widely damaged area in itseIf brought unique problems. No force had ever faced anything on this scale. Even in wartime, when air attacks were expected buildings were manned by firewatchers and others. At the time of the evening of this particular incident, many affected premises were unoccupied. In any event, because of the danger the area had been evacuated and owners or their representatives could only be allowed back after experts had declared their premises safe.
This new problem was met by a system devised and rigorously applied by the City Police that night. It worked well and paid handsome dividends later. Tight police cordons were maintained around the damaged area and persons seeking re-entry to their premises were directed to Bishopsgate Police Station where their credentials were checked and recorded. They were issued with passes and only after the premises were checked and declared safe were they formally handed back into the care of the owners, who then became responsible for their physical security. In this way, as premises were made safe and handed back to the occupiers, the cordoned area was shrunk progressively over that weekend. No cases of looting were reported other than the aIleged theft of some umbrellas from a broken window display. It is true that there were allegations of theft after contractors and others were admitted to repair the buildings and after they had been handed over to the owners, but this is not looting in the police sense of the word - it is simple theft.
This methodical and painstaking recording of the hand-over of premises operated 24 hours a day over several days and nights and tied down teams of officers when we could least afford them. The pay-off came when we were able to hand over to the Corporation of London accurate records of contacts of the owners and tenants of those premises that had been so badly damaged that the occupiers needed re-housing. This information was immensely useful to the Corporation which, to its great credit, successfully undertook to act as brokers, putting those who had been bombed out in touch with those who had premises to let. FortunateIy, because of the recession there were many such unlet premises in the City.
The information was also useful to the telecommunication companies who, over the weekend, helped recovery enormously by re-allocating companies' telecom numbers to their re-housed premises so that staff and business associates couId make contact as normal. In these ways the City did in fact return to near normal working after the weekend, except of course for the few demoIished buildings actually in St Mary Axe. By tremendous efforts by the police and city engineers, traffic dislocation was reduced to a minimum.
So great was the demand on police manpower in managing the return of owners to premises, that it was agreed that this aspect of recovery would be taken over by the Corporation of London and this did in fact happen at the Bishopsgate incident.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson learned from the St Mary Axe explosion was that in relation to evacuation. Until then, standard police practice was to evacuate everyone away from the suspect device, including those in buildings nearby. Clearly, had that happened in this new situation, given the wide area affected, people would have still been in the streets leaving the scene and at great risk from flying glass and other debris. From this experience, evacuation procedures were changed so that, depending on the size of the suspected device and its location, people would be advised to go to the basement or to the core of a building, away from windows and other large expanses of glass.
This new procedure worked well at the Bishopsgate incident where, also with the benefit of more adequate warnings, evacuation was organised so that there were far fewer casualties that might otherwise have been the case. Sadly, in one large bank building two security men did a marvelous job in arranging for all the staff to go to the basement where, as it happened, they were all perfectly safe. The two security officers then went back to the glass-fronted entrance to await events and became casualties. Naturally, the structure of a building has to be considered as has the position of the suspect device in relation to it. Most modern buildings can withstand considerable blast without collapsing. Part of the City of London Police anti-terrorist advice to companies is that they should have their buildings structures surveyed before drawing up their evacuation plans.
In common with every other force in the country, the City of London Police is party to an agreement that the anti-terrorist branch at New Scotland Yard will co-ordinate aIl investigations into terrorist offences, this on the basis that they are serial crimes and it would make no sense for each force to investigate such crimes independently. In fact the City force has staff permanently attached to the anti-terrorist branch and whenever a major crime occurs, such as at St Mary Axe, a team of City detectives is attached to the branch to investigate the City offence. Part of that arrangement is that the forensic investigating teams from New Scotland Yard attend the scene of the incident.
A vital part of the process at the scene is the painstaking fingertip searching to find evidence of the device and type of explosives used. This particular dirty and distressing work was carried out by men and women of the uniform branch of the City Police. They worked for many tedious and physically demanding hours and, although the van had been blown to smithereens and scattered over a wide area, found evidence which eventually lead to the identification within 24 hours of the motor van that had carried the bomb. The person who had innocently sold the vehicle to the terrorist was traced and still had banknotes with which he had been paid for the van. From fingermarks found on those banknotes, a suspect was later identified who was by then in custody for other terrorist offences but may yet be brought to justice in connection with this crime. It goes without saying that the standard of proof to convict anyone for such an offence has to be very high indeed.
Clearly the City could not stand another outrage like that of St Mary Axe and overnight I made preventing a recurrence the force's primary objective. With immediate effect we began rearranging priorities and manpower was stripped out from different departments of the force so that every available man and woman could be deployed on the streets. This meant that all but the most urgent other activities, including training, had to be suspended and in some areas the force had inevitably to give a reduced service. Restrictions under PACE made it impossible for us to set up permanent checks on vehicles coming into the City and, in any case, this would have been physically impossible given the number of entrances to the City, the volume of traffic and the limits of our resources. It was aIso unlikely that public opinion would have accepted such a draconian step at that time.
Nevertheless, something had to be done to deter the terrorists and, as one of the series of measures, the force set up what became known as rolling random road blocks. Stretching PACE powers to their limit this entailed, under the authority of a superintendent or above, randomly setting up road checks in different streets and stopping and checking those vehicles which fitted the terrorist profile available from intelligence at the time, or that were otherwise suspicious. From other sources we knew that this tactic was effective to the degree that the terrorists, even when merely reconnoitering, never knew when they might be confronted and checked by police units. Useful intelligence can be gained from even the presence of terrorist suspects or their known associates in an area.
As the year progressed, there were incidents elsewhere in the country when unarmed uniformed police were shot down by armed terrorists. Again, intelligence and experience had shown that the terrorists do not usually seek confrontation with armed police but do not hesitate to shoot if they believe the police with whom they have had a chance encounter to be unarmed. This, and the particular perceived threat to the City, drove us to be the first force in the mainland UK to have overtly armed police manning random road checks.
Another factor which affected that decision was the increased threat level brought about by the insurance industries' statement in November, l992 that the cost in damage of that single bomb at St Mary Axe was greater than that of the whole of the terrorists' 22 years campaigning in Northern Ireland. It could be that PIRA had already worked that out for themselves, but pointing it out publicly certainly removed any doubt.
In the aftermath of the St Mary Axe bomb, the City Police took a number of other measures. Traffic management CCTV coverage was extended andadapted to record and focus on incoming traffic, so that in the event of another similar incident we might have pictures of the offending vehicle and its occupants. City business houses were, as an additional deterrent, encouraged to install their own CCTV systems covering the outside of their premises. This paid off after the Bishopsgate incident when images of two suspects were picked up on one such system. The force also organised a series of public meetings to encourage and advise companies on how better to protect their buildings, including their IT systems and databases, and on making contingency plans for recovery. All this also produced dividends when the City was hit again by the Bishopsgate incident and companies were far better prepared.
Although our random road checks and other measures seemed tc be effective and kept the terrorists at bay for just over a year, it was only too easy for them to watch us and learn that the limitations placed upon us by PACE meant that there could be no permanent checks on vehicles coming into the City. With readily available mobile communications, and a scoutahead to tell them whether or not there was a poIice check operating, it was easy for them to find an opportunity to bring in the builders' large tipper lorry that conveyed the bomb into Bishopsgate about 9am that Saturday morning. They might even have been aware that police road checks were operating in the Bishopsgate area the previous night and into the early hours of the morning.
The bomb was constructed from a large amount of agricultural fertiliser, disguised by a layer of tarmac on top. They would have worked out that they had a good chance of passing unnoticed amongst the fleets of trucks and vans - too numerous for police to physically check even if they had the legal powers - entering the City every weekend to work on the massive construction that has been taking place there for some years including, ironically, repairing the damage caused by the St Mary Axe bomb. The lorry in question was in fact picked up by police systems before the first warnings were received, and two uniformed officers were aIready making enquiries about its presence in Bishopsgate when the first call came through. Its presence was also recorded on the traffic management video recorders and those pictures figured later in news broadcasts. It had only needed to travel a few hundred yards from the City boundary to get there, and, once in position and abandoned, the deed was done. Our challenge had to be finding some way of preventing it getting there in the first place. But more about that later.
About an hour and a half after its arrival, and after a series of coded warnings giving different timings, it exploded causing widespread devastation, the death of a press photographer, and varying degrees of injury to scores of other people who, despite police warnings, had not moved far enough away. The question was inevitably asked why it could not have been defused at the time. In the expert opinion of the explosives officer at the scene,there were technical reasons why that was just not possible. PIRA has become very skilled at building in anti-tamper devices into their bombs, and fragments recovered suggested that in this case one such booby trap was fitted. It should be remembered that it is in the terrorists' interest to kill the explosives officer for two main reasons. First is that he is the one most likely to thwart them in their objective in which they have invested a lot of risk and resources. Secondly, if the device is recovered intact it may provide forensic evidence to convict the perpetrators. Another problem is that the safest way for an explosives officer to disrupt such a device is by a controlled explosion. However, even with that there is a risk that the controlled explosion may itself trigger the larger explosion it is seeking to prevent.
Like the St Mary Axe outrage, the Bishopsgate incident attracted world-wide publicity and speculation. Inevitably a police response was called for. On every television and press interview I made the point that the lack of adequate legal powers to stop and search, and the restrictions under the PACE Act, made it impossible for the police to give any guarantee that we could stop the terrorists doing the same thing again and again. We needed now to consider setting up some kind of secure zone where every vehicle could be checked on entry. In fact, as already mentioned, I had reached this conclusion after the St Mary Axe bomb.
From all the indicators I had, I knew the Bishopsgate incident would change public opinion, especially the City business community who would be now well aware of the threat to the City's viability as one of the world's leading financial centres. It looked at first sight as if primary legislation would be required to allow police to set up any secure zone and the notion did not at first receive any support from the Corporation of London, or central government from the Prime Minister downwards, on the grounds that it would be an over-reaction, would make the City look like Belfast, give a propaganda coup to the PIRA and that in any case the public would not accept it.
To its credit, the Corporation of London in taking soundings from the City business community as to what level of security was acceptable, learned quickly and reacted to the strong message that something positive was required rather than sit and wait for the terrorists to strike again. In this the Lord Mayor of the day, Sir Francis McWilliams, and the chairman of policy, Michael Cassidy, played outstanding parts in guiding and leading the Corporation's response. '
Although police activity had been increased as far as our powers would allow, and generous finance had been provided for more recruits and more technology in the form of CCTV coverage, that was not considered enough by the City community and some foreign banks and finance houses were already talking about moving out of the City.
Experience and intelligence indicated that the PIRA (having, in their terms, seen two massive successes) were intent on pressing home their attacks on the area surrounding the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England at the eastern end of the City, which had clearly become their most attractive target. I decided that our first imperative must be to deny them that target.
With this in mind I proposed to the Corporation that I should use my powers under section l2 of the Road Traffic Management Act of 1984 to restrict vehicle access streets to the area concerned. After consultation between the city engineer's staff and my own, we sought to reduce access streets from 38 to eight. The remaining 3O streets would be blocked completely or made one-way outwards. To do this I needed the consent of the Corporation.
The plan would reduce access to a practical level at which police could scan incoming traffic and, when necessary, stop and check vehicles suspected of being involved in terrorist activity. Pending changes to legislation, on those instances where the circumstances may be outside the terms of PACE, this could be done with the consent of the vehicle occupants.
It would also allow us to use high technology CCTV cameras positioned to record details of every vehicle passing through those points, as well as the facial images of the occupants. The main objective of the terrorists is to come in and do their dastardly work, then escape without being noticed. Experience has shown that any possibility of being stopped and checked,or recorded on camera, is a formidable deterrent.
By good fortune, the Corporation already had on the shelf a yet-to-be implemented plan known as 'Key to the Future', intended to reduce vehicle traffic in the area surrounding the Bank of England and which could be adapted to our security needs. The Corporation engineer and his staff enthusiastically joined with the police planning team to produce the traffic experiment scheme which now operates very successfully in the City. Showing courage and determination, the Corporation supported the plan.
There was much public unease and criticism. For obvious reasons, widespread public consultation could not be an option. If the terrorists had known what was being proposed, there was a risk that they might have attempted to place further bombs before the plan came into operation. There was, in fact, close consultation with central government and other affected statutory bodies before implementation, but the public announcement could not be made until a few days before actual implementation on 3 July,1993.
The press and some motoring organisations had a field day with dire predictions of gridlock and chaos paralysing the whole of central London. However, the city engineer's and our own staff, using computer predictions, had assessed accurately that the traffic changes could be managed - but it still took nerve to carry it through.
Other criticisms put to me took three main forms. The most common was that we were giving the PIRA a propaganda coup. My answer was that as the terrorists had already had massive publicity from hitting the City with two huge bombs (and some smaller ones), causing loss of life, injury and massive damage to buildings and the country's economy, what more of a propaganda coup could we give them? And what sort of coup would it be if we allowed them to do it again and again?
The other main 'criticism was that we would be merely displacing the problem to other areas. My response was that terrorists make a large investment in risk and resources when they plan an attack. They have to reconnoitre the area, gather a team, acquire the materials, find somewhere to construct and store the bomb, obtain a suitable vehicle and finally deliver the device. All this puts them at considerable risk of detection by the security services. There is no evidence to indicate that if denied their main target they will necessarily make the same investment in attacking a lesser one. An essential factor here is the unique economic importance of that part of the City. The stark reality is that bomb attacks on, for instance, Oxford Street, Buckingham Palace or the Houses of Parliament, although horrendous, would not inflict the same long-term economic damage as would the loss of the Capital's financial heart and that will not have been lost in PIRA's thinking.
The third criticism was that by doing this we were throwing down a gauntlet to the terrorists. Given the history of what they have done to the City, one has to wonder what more of a challenge they needed. To have accepted any of these criticisms would have meant doing nothing more than we were already doing and I could not accept that as an option. Given our lack of legal powers and government's apparent lack of resolve at that time to give us new powers, it would have been all too easy to continue as we were, but still doing our best (for which we could not have been criticised) and then, when the next bomb went off have pleaded that we had not been given the powers to prevent it. It is worth remembering here that the causes of this terrorism lay elsewhere in the political situation in Northern Ireland and quite beyond the power of the City of London Police to affect. We could only react to the determined physical attacks on the City.
As it is, I have been criticised for allegedly misusing my traffic management powers for security purposes. On two separate occasions I have had a cabinet minister (not the Home Secretary) and a junior transport minister tell me separately and fairly bluntly, in face-to-face meetings, that I was abusing my powers. My response was that as the terrorists had by their bombing on two occasions caused massive traffic dislocation, it must surely be a sound and practical use of traffic management powers to bring in an experimental scheme that may prevent them doing it again. They were not persuaded. But I would far rather answer the charge that I abused my powers than that I failed to do everything possible to prevent another disastrous attack on the City. In any case, it would be a brave political soul who would start a legal challenge which, if successful, could mean dismantling the scheme and leaving the City once again at the mercy of the huge vehicle bomb.
It was probably the most contentious decision any police chief has had to take in recent times and I am pleased that so far I have been proved right. It may be that hand-held devices will still penetrate the cordon, but given this open and free society and the hundreds of thousands of people who enter the City every day in a variety of transport systems, there is no scheme which could prevent that. Certainly it is now much more difficult to bring in a large vehicle-borne bomb.
The benefits of the scheme are now widely acknowledged. There have been no more vehicle-borne terrorist bombs, despite the threatening letters the PIRA sent to foreign banks. Crime generally in the City has reduced by 17 per cent, and this on a reduction of lO.6 per cent in l992 that was a result of our extra activity after the St Mary Axe incident. Motor traffic is much reduced and flows more easily. Pedestrians can move around in greater safety and all pollution levels have dropped measurably. On every environmental ground this part of the City has become a far better place in which to work, live or frequent.
Nor has traffic that normally passed through the City been greatly inconvenienced. By improving the flow of the main routes surrounding the experimental area, which was part of the plan from the beginning, the same amount of through traffic is still passing through the City as easily as it did before.
The Act allowed me to exercise the power for a period of 6 months (with the local authority approval) and then for another 6 months, but no longer than 12 months in all. At the time of writing, we are now into the second 6 months. Having retired from the police service in December, (1993) the future management of the police aspect of the scheme lies in the hands of my successor. While the terrorist threat remains at its current level, I believe that the scheme should remain as it is. Should the terrorist threat level reduce, as one day it must, and the police scanning points be removed, then for the environmental benefits alone the experiment should surely be made permanent. The Corporation of London is currently seeking the legal right to do just that.
After the Bishopsgate incident two other important innovations were brought in by the force before my retirement. One was Camera Watch. This built on the work done after the St Mary Axe bomb when the force actively encouraged and supported companies in setting up their own CCTV systems outside their own buildings. Taking that a stage further, the force set about Iogging all such systems and encouraging the owners to liaise with each other to eliminate overlap and, where appropriate, share monitoring. At some time in the future it may be possible for these private systems to be linked into the police systems when a need arises. Camera Watch took a lot of commitment in force time and resources, but has already proved worthwhile in its contribution to general crime reduction as well as anti-terrorism.
The other important innovation was Pager AIert. One of the lessons Iearned at the Bishopsgate incident was that people deep in buildings -especially at weekends when normal telephones are not manned, and because of double glazing and other noise insulation - fail to hear police loud hailers and other warnings from the street. They are then at risk of emerging from their premises into danger. To counter that, the force came up with the idea of a pager alert. With British Telecom (who won the tender) a system was set up whereby key people in premises, such as security officers, or even private individuals, can rent at Iow cost a dedicated pager on which they can receive a police warning of any serious terrorist or other public safety threat which might affect them. That,too, has been highly successful.