What's it's like to hunt terrorists and assassins from the shadows? Join us for a day in the life of the Met's Counter Terrorism Command
I walked into the office first thing on a Friday morning in June 2007 and prepared to resume my Captain Chaos mantle, ringing round everyone to check their status; officers in 1600, in observation posts, and to check in with my contact from the Security Service. But as soon as my newspaper hit the desk my phone started to ring. Good grief, I haven’t even taken off my coat yet, I thought. I’d been on the Tube for twenty minutes with no phone signal; that can be a long time in our world. I picked up the receiver: ‘Can I help you?’ I asked wearily. As with many police departments we never automatically identify who we are.
‘Harry, it’s the DCI here,’ a voice said, before adding his name. Unusual I thought, but I let it roll over me.
‘Hi, Boss, you OK?’
‘How many people have you got available?’ I screwed up my eyes and started to decipher the Boards of Chaos, the one reliable source of information of what everyone was up to.
‘Errrr . . .’ I said as I put it together, just to let the DCI know I was getting there. I was thinking that I needed a shot of caffeine.
‘Don’t fuck around, Harry, I am sat on a live bomb here!’ OK, now I’m awake!
‘Almost everybody,’ I quickly replied.
‘I’ll ring you back.’ Bang, the phone went down. Oh God, I thought, here we go.
As I started to call everyone in, word came down that I was to cancel all of that day’s surveillance. The situation was clearly developing and I had a feeling that this wouldn’t be the only bomb we’d see that day. At about 1.40 a.m. that morning, Andrew Shaw, an off-duty fireman, had been walking up the Haymarket, in London’s West End. He stopped when saw a clear vapour coming from an empty green Mercedes parked outside the front entrance to the Tiger Tiger nightclub, which, being a Friday night, was packed with partying Londoners.
He tried the car door and was surprised to discover that it was open. A quilt was laid across the back seat. Shaw could smell gas and spotted a metal cylinder wedged between the two front seats. It was leaking, so he did what any self-respecting fireman would and yanked it out and turned off the valve. It was then that he saw several kilograms of nails and other bits of shrapnel lying next to another cylinder in the footwell. He also saw two Nokia mobile phones with wires coming from them placed in front of the gear stick. He called the police.
Thanks to the IRA, the simple car bomb has been a part of British life longer than the Internet and as a result our bomb disposal squads are the best in the world and they were more than ready to deal with anything thrown at them. The first question any bomb-disposal expert asks is: what kind of device is it? Is it timed, set off to explode at any moment? Is it a command-initiated device to be set off by radio control, or a victim-operated device – a booby trap? The Haymarket bomb was command-initiated. The idea was that a call made to the mobile phones would lead to the detonation. In this case, the ringing circuit in each phone was wired to a light bulb, held in a syringe and surrounded by match heads.
The simple devices were intended to ignite the volatile vapours swirling inside the vehicle and explode the gas canisters followed by the 100 litres of petrol divided into four 25-litre canisters in the boot. Then there were the 2,000-odd nails that would act as shrapnel. These bombs were rudimentary – with none of the dreaded biological, chemical or radioactive ‘proper’ explosives such as C4. Historically, terrorists have tended to favour pragmatism and economy over more sophisticated methods. The nails were a bit of a giveaway that these were first-time or amateur bomb builders.
An exploding cloud would not project anything at its centre outwards at any great speed. Of course, what matters is not the technological complexity of a device but how many people it can kill – and this bomb could definitely have killed. These were fuel–air explosive bombs – thermobaric bombs – designed to produce a huge fireball by igniting aerated liquid gasoline. Fuel–air bombs produce a blast wave of a significantly longer duration than those produced by traditional condensed explosives, increasing the number of casualties and causing more damage to structures.
“It was then that he saw several kilograms of nails and other bits of shrapnel lying next to another cylinder in the footwell. He also saw two Nokia mobile phones with wires coming from them placed in front of the gear stick.”
They’re just about the most vicious weapon you can imagine – igniting the air, sucking the oxygen out of an enclosed area, and creating a massive pressure wave crushing anything unfortunate enough to have survived the initial blast. The American military used thermobaric bombs to clear acres of jungle in Vietnam and, ironically enough, the UK used thermobaric weapons in Afghanistan, in Hellfire missiles fired from Apache helicopters.
It seemed likely that there would be a second device. In 2002, bombers in Bali killed 200 night-clubbers and wounded hundreds more by detonating two separate devices, one to draw curious onlookers and a second that exploded in the midst of the assembled crowd.
A first explosion outside Tiger Tiger might well have drawn onlookers to the edge of a police cordon and into the range of the second potential car bomb. But where, if it existed, was it?
Finally, back at TT, the command came in:
‘Prepare to deploy for three days.’ Right. I got the team together in the office and briefed them with what little I knew myself.
‘I’ve no idea what’s going on except all hell is about to break loose and we need to be ready. I can’t say when we’ll be going home. You need clothes for the next three days and food and drink for the next twenty-four hours. In the meantime, charge your phones, radios and batteries and pack everything. Fill the cars’ tanks to the brim. When we get the call, there will be no time. I do not want to hear “Hang on, Harry, I’ve just go to do this, that and the other.” So call home, let your family know you’re going away and anyone who’s not available for the next seventy-two hours should make themselves known now.’ Danny raised his hand.
‘Can I go home and get me clobber?’
‘No chance. Sorry, Danny. I know you’re not far away but if you get stuck in traffic or the Tube then you’re no use to me.’ Grinning, I added, ‘We’ll go to Tesco round the corner. At long last you’ll be able to join me and dress in the finest clothes Tesco has to offer.’
Danny pulled a face but accepted his fate. After stocking up in Tesco, filling the cars with petrol and loading the boot we sat and waited. Frustration soon started to set in. We were one reactive missile waiting for the intelligence to catch up with our suspects. As soon as the intelligence came up with a location, then we’d be launched after them. The time dragged on and on and we sat in front of Sky News, watching out for any developments, but it was recycling the same headlines over and over. What were we waiting for? I wondered. Where were the bombers? On TV terrorism experts came and went.
‘Car bombs are cheap and simple to make and easy to hide,’ said one. ‘You can buy books on Amazon that tell you how to make a car bomb.’ Danny performed a search of Amazon.
‘He may be right about car bombs being cheap but I can’t find anything on Amazon.’
‘Car bombs,’ the expert continued, ‘really are the terrorist weapon of choice in terms of sheer brutality and destructive reach.’ We found the second device, thanks once again to public vigilance. A car bomb had been illegally parked in Cockspur Street, just around the corner from the southern end of the Haymarket, on the edge of Trafalgar Square, and had been quickly clamped and towed. It was now in an underground car park in Park Lane. The clampers had heard about the first bomb on the news and called the cops when they checked the cars they’d picked up that night and spotted the metal canisters inside the Mercedes.
Still we waited. At 10 p.m., I curled up in a ball on the floor at the back of the office, pulled my hood over my head and tried to sleep. The former army boys always advised me to ‘Eat and sleep when you can, for you never know when you’ll be able to do so again.’ I suggested that the others try to do the same, but I couldn’t sleep; I found myself listening to Danny’s, Raj’s and George’s banter. I was too full of excitement, anxiousness and frustration.
Finally, at 11 p.m. we were sent home. I allocated the police cars to those I’d call out first (including myself) and we headed off, our adrenaline all but gone. I awoke at the crack of dawn and prowled around the house like a caged lion. I suspected that the rest of the squad were doing exactly the same thing. My bag was packed and sat ready by the front door. I checked and rechecked it. So much of this job is about waiting. Far too much, I thought. I couldn’t distract myself and spent the rest of the morning walking round the kitchen table and staring at the phone, while my family tried their best to get on with their lives with me there – but not there.
It was tough on my wife and the kids but they also knew that scenes like this came with the territory. They’d seen the news and had naturally put two and two together. The job put them under a lot of pressure as well as me. So many families have been destroyed by the job; I’ve been to loads of police weddings and commiserated with many a bride or groom months or years later, once the job had taken its toll.
The Stockwell tragedy was still fresh in everyone’s mind. This was an almost identical situation to 21/7 – bombers on the run after a failed attack, every resource at the Met’s disposal activated to track them down before they struck again. I was lost in thought about all of this when the phone finally rang. I nearly jumped out of my skin.
This is an extract from the book ‘Terror Cops’ by Kris Hollington and Harry Keeble. To buy the book, click below.
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