Lessons from Sri Lanka

So-called Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the Easter Sunday atrocities in Sri Lanka that killed at least 250 people and wounded over 500 more. If this was an act coordinated by IS then it does change, fundamentally, the way the emergency services in the UK need to think about the threat that might manifest itself locally.

For the last two to three years it has been the attack in Paris in November 2015 that killed 130 people that was the benchmark. This showed how a well-planned attack – which involved elements of military manoeuvre (with distraction at its heart) in an urban landscape – could create a security vacuum that a third wave of terrorists could exploit.

For our own recent history we have had one case of an attack in Birmingham that was planned to involve eight suicide bombers. What eight bombers killing themselves in quick order in a major shopping centre would have achieved is difficult to model. But a rough estimate suggests over 400 dead and at least 1,000 injured – many critically. The number that would succumb to their injuries within the so-called ‘golden hour’ would be huge.

And yet the emergency services crews deploying to such an attack would know that if eight suicide bombers had killed themselves then the potential for a ninth to be laying in wait for their arrival could not be discounted. Awaiting help from armed response teams – who may well have been chasing a distraction attack – is simply not viable if people are going to live.

The recent publication of the manual Responding to a Marauding Terrorist Attack, issued by a multi-agency team that is responsible for the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Protocols, tries to address these dilemmas and to learn lessons from events in the UK in 2017. This document however was not published in isolation. The publication of the report entitled Progress update on the Kerslake Report also adds another insight into how those who write the doctrine of the emergency services are addressing the challenges posed by acts of terrorism intent on mass murder. While the report suggests progress has been made it rightly says there is much work to do.

Detailed reading of both documents shows that an awful lot of assumptions are being made about the way response would be managed. The plain and simple fact is that the emergency services community in the United Kingdom is on a journey – one driven by the potential for another series of major terror attacks. If so-called IS can assemble such an attack is Sri Lanka, why could it do the same thing in the UK?

While manuals are one part of a solution to being prepared there is something else that needs to be a priority for all of the senior leadership in the emergency services. They need to be clear what they mean by ‘operational discretion’ and what the limits are. And the public, which hold the emergency services in high esteem, need to be told what the limits of that response are so their expectations can be managed. Writing words is one thing. Making it crystal clear what they mean is another much more difficult and pressing task.

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