Part I: The Threat

From July 18th to August 12th millions of tourists from all over the world will converge on London to tour the city’s sites and take in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. In addition to athletes, prominent foreign leaders, and members of the media, the games are also expected to attract hundreds of thousands of spectators. In all, it is projected that 8 million Olympic tickets will be sold to visitors wanting to glimpse one of the 39 athletic disciplines on show.

Unfortunately, large sporting events such as this tend to attract violence, terrorism, and crime. The London Olympics may prove an especially tempting target to terrorists due to Britain’s participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is believed that there are many radical Muslims sympathetic to Al Qaeda living in England. After all, it was homegrown terrorists who perpetrated the July 2005 terrorist attacks that killed 52 London commuters.

Security has long been a principle concern of national Olympic committees and with good reason. In the1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian terrorists attempted to kidnap members of the Israeli Olympic team. This disastrous act resulted in the suspension of the competition, the withdrawal of several athletes, and the death of 12 people. In 1996, the Olympic games was again the target of terrorism. Eric Robert Rudolph, a right wing extremist, planted a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park that killed two people and injured 111 others.

While Al Qaeda remains a significant terrorist threat, many intelligence officials now believe that the organization’s leadership in Afghanistan and Pakistan is too weak to coordinate attacks outside of South and Central Asia. However, Al Qaeda’s affiliate groups in other regions of the world may have the capability. Moreover, many within the counterterrorist community now believe that the largest threat stems from so-called lone wolf attackers. These individuals are hard to detect because they have few or no formal connections with known terrorist organizations, yet feel inspired by these groups to commit violence.

Security experts are not confining themselves to England or limiting their list of threats to radical Islamic groups. Even though tensions in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat, there is a fear that dissident Irish radicals may attempt to strike the games. British intelligence personnel are reportedly monitoring events in Ireland because they believe that Irish or Islamic radicals may use the island as a gateway for an Olympic terrorist attack.

Given the diversity of potential adversaries, the British law enforcement, military, and intelligence services are actively seeking to thwart a myriad of threats. Not only are these professionals preparing for traditional foes such as suicide bombers, kidnappers, and gunmen, they are anticipating atypical threats as well. For example, the British security services have been alerted to a purported Al Qaeda plot to distribute hand cream laced with cyanide.

While authorities are confronting the terrorist threat head on, they are cognizant of other dangers as well. Indeed, there are British officials who believe that incidents, other than acts of terrorism, are far more likely to impede the games. Some fear that there could be an episode of civil disorder and violence not unlike the 2011 riots that swept many cities in England. There is also a concern that protests or union strikes could disrupt the games. Additionally, England’s criminal element may attempt to exploit the opportunity provided by the competition to further their own malevolent ends.

Part II: The Preparation

While the threats to the 2012 Olympics are significant, the British government is doing its utmost to ensure that the games are as safe as possible. The security budget for the games has already topped $2 billion. A large part of this money will go towards funding a security force believed to exceed 40,000 personnel. This force includes over 13,000 mobilized British troops–the UK’s largest military mobilization since World War II. Additionally, over 10,000 private security contractors have been hired to augment police and military units. Other nations will also be providing their own security details in order to protect their visiting citizens and athletes. For instance, the United States is reportedly sending about 1,000 agents, many from the FBI, to protect American Olympic contestants.

This massive and multinational force will be complemented by a sophisticated security infrastructure. Electric fences and biometric entry control points will protect many sensitive areas. London’s extensive CCTV system will be supplemented by advanced facial recognition technology. There will even be disease-tracking systems in place to monitor the outbreak of infections. London’s mass array of security kit will also include unmanned aerial drones, fighter planes, surface-to-air missiles, and an aircraft carrier. Planning and preparation is so extensive that the city is conducting rehearsals and incident response drills that involve thousands of emergency personnel and volunteers.

What You Can Do

Even though the security operation in London is far-reaching and sophisticated, the city will depend on citizens and visitors to report activity they believe to be dangerous or suspicious. After all, no security operation can hope to anticipate every contingency or be at all places and all times. Therefore, tourists should understand how to identify and report suspicious activity.

Any of the following types of activity could be considered suspicious:

  1. Individuals who sit in vehicles for long periods of time or who drive slowly by public buildings, bridges, or other critical infrastructure with no clear purpose.
  2. The possession of multiple identification cards or documents in different names.
  3. The use of several different vehicles or the changing of license plates.
  4. Individuals paying particular attention to entries, exits, hallways, stairwells, fire escapes, and checkpoints.
  5. The use of recording equipment such as cameras, camera phones, or sketchbooks in non-tourist locations, particularly, the filming of critical infrastructure such as bridges, tunnels, subways, tube stations, airports, or train stations.
  6. Individuals asking for detailed or unusual questions, especially if they pertain to security, operations, building design, and/or daily routines.
  7. The possession of multiple cell phones or other communication devices with no clear explanation.
  8. Individuals inside off-limits areas or individuals who seem to be purposely triggering or testing entry points.
  9. The purchase of large or unusual quantities of chemicals, or chemical protective gear such as goggles, masks, and rubber gloves.
  10. The purposeful damaging or avoidance of security equipment, checkpoints, or personnel.

If travelers witness suspicious activity they should report it as soon as possible to the UK’s Antiterrorist Hotline at 0800 789 321. This hotline is staffed by specially trained officers able to listen to callers’ concerns and decide if further action is necessary. However, this hotline should be used for non-imminent threats only. If travelers observe something that may pose an immediate threat such as an unattended package or bag, or witness a crime in progress they should call the British emergency number by dialing 999.

Even though the threat of terrorism during the 2012 Olympic Games is significant, travelers should remember that the UK has some of the most competent security professionals in the entire world and the British government has committed a historic amount of resources to ensuring that these games are as safe as possible. Moreover, the British are long accustomed to terrorism, and many members of the public know how to spot and report suspicious activity. Although the risks to the games should not be downplayed, visitors should experience a safe and memorable Olympics in one of the world’s great cities.