Reinforcing public transit security will paralyze it – ex-Scotland Yard officer Peter Bleksley

The mayor of London recently said that terrorist attacks are “part and parcel of living in a big city” – and sadly, this might be true for the world these days. London, this week, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, next – big cities are falling victim to terrorism and innocent lives are becoming the target. Extremists strike at the most vulnerable parts of the city, and police do not seem to be able to stop them. Is there a cure for this malady? Can big city terrorism be defeated? And how do you stop a lone-wolf attacker when he has already set out on a mission? We ask a former London Metropolitan police officer, founding member of Scotland Yard’s undercover unit – Peter Bleksley.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Founding member of Scotland Yard’s undercover unit, veteran of the London Metropolitan police  force - Peter Bleksley, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Now, mr. Bleksley, A terrorist attack has shaken the Russian city of St. Petersburg, targeting its metro. London was left shocked by a similar attack, last year Brussels was the target of a metro bombing - can underground transit be effectively protected at all, is it always going to be a soft target?

Peter Bleksley: Of course, our underground system here in London was attacked in 2005 with a catastrophic loss of life, and numerous injuries. It is, to some extent, a “soft target” because in order for the underground system to work effectively, it must have many-many people passing through it, swiftly, efficiently, and they can’t all be checked.

SS: Now, the device that went off in St Petersburg was a homemade bomb. With police ever present and metal detectors at subway entrances - how does a terrorist with a bomb get through? Do train stations need airport style security to be 100 percent safe?

PB: Yes, there’s an argument for that, but of course, the difficulty once again is the movement of passengers: underground systems, buses, trains, rely on a large number of people moving in and out the system, quickly and effectively. If you slow these methods down, so that you have airport-style security, they just won’t function.

SS: There were undercover anti-terror police officers patrolling London's tube at one time, in 2004 after Madrid - was that effective? Does this still exist? What do they do if they see suspicious activity?

PB: Well, there are lots of methods, there are security services and military, and police put in place that never see. More overt and visible deterrent such as armed police will, of course, deter some, but no matter what method you put in place, the really dedicated terrorist, the person who will not be deterred by anything, may, unfortunately, always find an opportunity to breach whatever systems we have.

SS: Here’s another thing: fear of terrorism can lead to big cities getting rid of trash cans - London, Paris, Moscow…some switched to clear plastic bags where it's supposedly easier to spot a bomb. But I don’t really understand, what does a bomb even look like, how do you detect one? Like, if I see something in a plastic bag in  the street, how do I know it’s a bomb?

PB: Bombs come in many different shapes and sizes, and a terrorist will always seek to disguise that. That is why we got rid of rubbish tins many years ago in London, because terrorists  thought they were good thing in which to place an explosive device. The message to the public is, if you see something that you are not happy with, if you see something that you are just slightly suspicious about - then get on the phone and report it. You will not be criticized for putting safety first.

SS: But I just wonder what do I have to see in that plastic bag that has replaced trash cans, for me to report? Because it’s one thing for a police officer, who has a trained eye to detect a bomb, but I wouldn’t even know what a bomb looks like.

PB: As I’ve said, they come in many different shapes and sizes, and will often be disguised to look like fairly innocent items. But if you see something lying on the ground that is unattended - for example, a piece of luggage, a plastic carrier bag, a briefcase - any kind of innocent item that would normally belong to a person and should be with a person, if you see such an item, lying around, unattended, then get on the phone.

SS: Most of the recent terrorist attacks we’ve been witnessing lately didn’t require much preparation. The London terrorist - Khalid Masood - simply rented a car, grabbed a knife and set out on his mission, it took him 82 seconds to commit the atrocity. Is the chance of preventing such attacks, in reality, zero, since it’s so low key?

PB: We’ve been very fortunate in the UK: in the last 3 years, our security services and police have foiled at least 12 terrorist plots. The harsh reality, the unpalatable reality, is that we cannot foil every single plot every single time. When a terrorist like Masood, chooses and everyday items, like a car and a knife, to carry out such an attack, and he doesn’t communicate with a wider terrorist base, it is very-very difficult to identify, to intercept, and so, therefore, to prevent.

SS: ISIL is losing the war in the Middle East -  is that why it’s switching to this simple lone wolf attack pattern, because it can’t afford to do more? What do you think, do you see a connection there?

PB: I think, as its power base in the Middle East retreats, shrinks and is getting defeat on a regular, if not daily basis, then, of course, we have seen them reaching out to people, calling out the people to carry out these very low-tech attacks, which are very difficult to detect. However, there’s a very clear message coming out of the UK - recently - a message of defiance, and that is, if you have a warped ideology, if you have a sickened mindset, and you choose to carry out these attacks, you will not beat the will and the spirit of the British people. The aims of these terrorists, in the end of the day, will prove to be futile. Yes, we may have catastrophes along the way, but the overarching aim of theirs will never be achieved.

SS: Life in a metropolis is dangerous. The officials themselves admit it - mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has said last year that the threat of terrorism is ‘part and parcel’ of living in a big city - do you agree, is it just the new ‘normal’ that people have to be ready to accept?

PB: Yes, it is a threat, it is an almost daily part of life living in a big city. But I am a Londoner born and raised, and when I was a child, a teenager, I was made aware to look out for unattended packages and bags, I was made aware of the fact that the Irish Republican Army back in those days could strike at any moment. But part of the strength of London, and many other cities, is our resilience, our determination not to be bowed, not to be beaten, and not to change our way of life. As long as we have that unshakable belief, that we go around our daily business, unaffected, then that gives us the greatest victory over terrorism.

SS: Apple defied the FBI after San Bernardino, and now WhatsApp is scolded by the British government for not allowing them to look at the attacker’s last message, sent via the app - will the lives lost pressure tech companies to give up their encryption?

PB: This is a very sensitive subject. But of course, I believe, there are bright minds out there, who will be able to circumvent this encryption and I’m sure that governments are already speaking to these kind of companies, to these very bright minds, who will be able to encode, who will be able to break the codes, that are put in place by these encryptions. I’m sure this debate will take place in our Parliament, and should our government choose to bring pressure to bear upon these companies, then we may well see that.

SS: The police has also blamed Google and Twitter for allowing extremists a platform for their views - why aren’t their channels and accounts banned, anyway?

PB: Well, we do not live in an authoritarian state here in the UK, we live in a land where we cherish our freedoms, and the freedoms that apply to individuals often apply to companies in exactly the same fashion. These companies, of course, however, do have a responsibility to ensure that they do not become mouthpieces for those that would do us harm. There’s a balance to be struck between freedoms of the individual, freedoms for companies, and safety and security of our citizens.

SS: Everyone seems to be trying to find their balance, but it turns out it’s not that easy - the experiences of the terrorist attacks in Europe in the past year and a half, or two, show us. So, should terrorists be allowed to spread hate messages on these apps or not? Maybe it’s time to do something about it?

PB: I  think these tech companies do have a responsibility to monitor their services as best as they can, but there are, of course, millions upon millions of messages, tweets, emails and postings of videos carried out every day of the week. Do these giant companies have the resources and the will to police themselves as much as we and the government would like to see them policed? This will be an ongoing debate, but we’ll not have an answer in the near future.

SS: But also, do you understand, though, the hi-tech companies not trusting the government? I mean, especially after finding out that it’s spying on everyone? I mean, they ask you for emergency backdoor access once, and the next thing you know, every day is emergency day and private data is being hoarded by officials…

PB: There’s an ongoing debate in the UK about the powers of the state, how much power should they have to mine vast, vast quantities of data - the data of all of us, our email communications and the like. This debate will not be solved today, tomorrow, or possibly in the next week. It is an ongoing question that will need to be addressed, but it all boils down to striking a balance, a balance between the freedoms and the rights of the individual, and the powers and the necessity of the state to be able to stop those people that would do us harm.

SS: Seeing how electronic surveillance is failing to stop terrorism, will the gov’t focus on classic ‘people work’ - like the undercover work you did for Scotland Yard?

PB: These successful operation, invariably, have an element of many different tactics: electronic surveillance, telephone interception, human surveillance, where a team of cover officers will go out and follow a suspect and gather evidence along the way. Sometimes, you may find that there’s a role for an undercover detective to infiltrate the organisation and to gather intelligence that way. So, these operation very-very often have elements of different law enforcement tactics.

SS: For instance, in Israel, they consider their anti-terror effort a failure if the attacker gets within a mile of a target. Prevention starts early and it starts with human intelligence - does the UK have its people on the inside of homegrown terrorism? That has been the big question for all of the European cities, that we shaken by the terrorist attacks.

PB: I’m sure that all governments across Europe would very much like to have an undercover operative infiltrating all these terrorist organisations, who would choose to do us harm. In order to do that, it often takes a lot of time and effort and you need to create an opportunity in which to infiltrate these people. It’s always great to have somebody on the inside, but it’s not always possible. These operations are complex, time-consuming, and use a wide variety of tactics.

SS: How hard is it to infiltrate a religious extremist group? Does the police have to employ Muslim agents for that? Does it have enough suitable people for the job?

PB:In the UK, “the police are of the people”, they are recruited from the people, and they should reflect the people. The British police force, recently, have done a lot of work to try and recruit people from minority communities. So, if that’s being a case, and if they are successful doing that, then it stands to reason that they may have suitable candidates who can go off and infiltrate whatever aspect of society, whatever group, whatever faith, whatever color or creed it may be, that would seek to do us harm.

SS: Where does homegrown extremism start, and where do those groups recruit? Is it strictly over the Internet now or there are still old-fashioned meet-and-greets?

PB: The police and the security services in the UK have done an awful lot in reaching out, in particular, to Muslim community to create relationships with faith leaders and ensure that there are people, on the ground, who will be able to spot people that they fear of being radicalized and drawn towards terrorism. That having been said, it’s not always possible to spot every single person who creates a threat. That’s when the wide range, broad strokes, of other different tactics are brought into play.

SS: Can the government, or the police, control the mosques where radicals meet and recruit, does it have the right to interfere into the religious life of the community?

PB: These are places of worship, the government doesn’t have the right to run places of worship and to interfere with people who are expressing their absolute human right to practice their faith, whatever faith that may be. But what we have done over here in recent times is reach and build those bridges, create those relationships that are so important, in order to try and detect people who may be taken down the wrong path and would want to carry out those attacks.

SS: Do you think the British Muslim community will become a bit isolated after this attack? Surely there are going to be people that would put the blame on every Muslim they see…

PB: Our muslim population will not be marginalized by the attack. Most muslims in this country and law-abiding peaceful people of faith. The fact that a minute minority of Muslim people would seek to do us harm in this country, will not, will never ensure that Muslims are marginalized and pushed out to the fringes of society. That simply will not happen.

SS: But do you feel like...Is the community now sufficiently well-integrated into British life or is the situation too complicated to tell? On one hand, you have the sharia law patrols in certain spots of England, the radical mosques, the hate preachers, but is there more to the community than that?

PB: So much work has been done in recent times to tackle people who would preach hate. In fact, one of the most notable hate preachers of the UK is now firmly behind bars in the prison serving time for his offenses. We are inclusive. The state reaches out to people here as we try to find solutions. Marginalizing people, having prejudice find home, is not the answer. Once again, I do not hesitate in saying that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in our nation are law-abiding, peaceful people, who contribute to society.

SS: People who knew the London attacker say he wasn’t exactly a ‘proper’ Muslim, just like the attacker in Nice - he did drugs and had an extensive criminal record. Why would a non-observant Muslim be acting in the name of religious terrorism - and does that make it even harder for police to single out potential ‘lone-wolf’ attackers?

PB: I cannot speak for the clearly sickened mind of the Westminster attacker, who was following a futile plan - because we will never shaken from our beliefs to live freely and happily in this country. Of course, somebody who is following such a perverted ideology, who wants  to carry out such a horror, in such a low-tech way, will always be very difficult to identify, to intercept, and to therefore stop. But, you know, one man’s wrongdoing will not shake this nation from its determination to remain united as one and going about our business in our everyday fashion.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

SS: But I’m just really more talking about how we catch these people. Masood was known to secret services and this follows a European pattern - all the latest terror attacks in Europe were carried out by people who were known to the intelligence services. What’s the point of surveillance​ if you still don’t stop people from doing harm?

PB: You know, we cannot stop every attack, and I think the largely pragmatic British people who’ve lived with terrorism for decades and decades, understand and appreciate that. We take the steps we can to try and not become a victim, we trust our security services and our police to work tirelessly to try and prevent these attacks, but yes, there’s an argument that we cannot stop every attack on every single occasion. But it had been a long time since we’ve suffered one of those dreadful attacks in the UK. I personally am grateful to our security services and our police for what they have done and for what they will continue to do in the future.

SS: The British police is traditionally averse to actually being armed with guns - but seeing how the Westminster attacker had to be shot by an armed policeman, will the government now issue more weapons to police? Can the old tradition of consent policing with no guns survive the terrorist threat?

PB: Well, we’ve had an armed firearms department in the Metropolitan police since 1960s and we see more and more armed police on our streets, in our airports, at our railway stations, than we did 30 years ago. But once again, the public is accepting that they are a deterrent, they’ve become part of our everyday life, but it is only approximately 3-4% of the British police who are, in fact, armed. We are in a long-long way away from having every police officer  routinely armed with a gun. The police don’t want that, and this attack of recent time is not going to suddenly create an enormous difference to how the streets of Britain are policed.

SS: After attacks in France, Belgium there have been more calls for an EU-wide intelligence sharing network - and more coordination between member states’ police forces. Now with Brexit underway, Britain may be excluded from those plans? Will Britain’s exit from the union harm the country’s security in a way?

PB: I am absolutely convinced that Brexit will not affect  the security of our nation and the security of the broader Europe. Our nations will continue to liaise through well-established organisations and principles. When it comes to protecting life and property, when it comes to saving lives - protection comes above the politics.

SS: Thank you so much for this interesting insight. We were talking to Peter Bleksley, veteran Scotland Yard’s undercover officer, discussing the terrorism that’s hitting Western cities and how the police effectively respond to the threat of extremism. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.