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Is Europe Prepared for the Inevitable?

September 8, 2003

A simulated chemical attack on the London Underground system this weekend tested Britain's terror response teams. With experts forecasting European targets in the future, are other capitals prepared for the worst?

Europe's crisis teams are on alert - but how ready are they?Image: AP

If the world’s perception had not changed so radically since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States two years ago, the scenes in London on Sunday could have easily been mistaken for those from a disaster movie.

In a different time, observers might have looked on with mild interest as hundreds of fire and ambulance staff, backed up by heavily armed police officers in protective suits, carried mock casualties from an underground station in the financial heartland of England’s capital.

But this was no film set and the global situation as it is gave events a very serious edge.

In the first major test of its kind carried out by authorities in a major European city, emergency services staged a mock chemical weapons attack on an underground train below London's banking district in an attempt to gauge the readiness and competence of the capital’s response teams in the event of a terrorist attack.

Underground attack simulated

London Underground
London's underground system would be a prime target.Image: AP

Using the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995 as a template, the simulation involved passengers on a train from Waterloo station to Bank station being overcome by an unknown chemical. After being alerted by the tube driver, more than 500 members of the three emergency services sealed off the ‘hot zone’ and began evacuating the volunteer "casualties" to street level, some 120 meters above them.

Once outside, casualties were decontaminated in special shower tents and transported to hospitals in the capital. At the same time, people pretending to be affected by the spread of the chemical in a larger ‘warm zone’ around the district began arriving at medical centers.

According to the co-coordinators of the test, the main aim of the exercise was to use new diagnostic and treatment equipment and to assess the cohesion between the emergency services. Despite the general consensus among those involved that the exercise was a success and that the structures currently in place worked well, there was an ominous feeling that the controlled conditions of the rehearsal could only achieve so much.

Resigned to suicide attacks in Britain

London Bürgermeister Ken Livingstone
Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London.Image: AP

Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London (picture), told the BBC that the exercise would help save lives in the event of a terror attack. However, he conceded, "we recognize if someone's prepared to give their life in order to kill, it's most probably impossible to stop them getting through. Our job is to put into place the things that minimize the loss of life when they do get through."

Despite positive noises from the Labor government on the success of the exercise, which it maintains had no relation to any specific threat on the capital, opposition ministers have warned that the UK still lags behind the level of response and competency of its counterparts in the United States in the event of a terrorist strike.

The London exercise came at the same time as U.S. emergency services staged a similar test on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge between South Jersey and Philadelphia. Fire fighters and paramedics converged on the bridge in a simulation based on a terrorist hijacking of a high-speed train loaded with explosives that was intended for detonation at the Delaware River crossing’s mid-way point.

Extensive drills across the U.S.

USA Terror Jahrestag
September 11, 2001.Image: AP

The United States has carried out a number of exercises testing the response to further terror attacks since September 11, 2001 including possible airborne strikes, simulated outbreaks of plague and the mock detonation of radioactive ‘dirty’ bombs which could spread contaminating material over a wide urban area. However, the exercise in London was the first of its kind in a European capital.

The United Kingdom was rated tenth on a ‘league’ table of most vulnerable countries in terms of terror attacks in a study conducted by the World Markets Research Center (WMRC). It was the highest rated European country in terms of terrorist threats according to the study, due to its close relationship with the United States -- ranked fourth -- and its involvement in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those European countries that opposed the war in Iraq, specifically France and Germany were rated as much lower risks with France rated at 23rd and Germany 41st.

If anything can be learned from the ‘war on terror’, it must be that no country is immune from attack and that capital cities will always remain an attractive target for those wishing to strike at nations considered to be ‘the enemy’.

Terror alerts within Europe have increased as the timeline continues to stretch away from September 11, 2001 towards a new and possibly more spectacular and devastating attack, which experts consider to be “inevitable.” And mounting evidence points to the possibility that next time, it could by a European city counting its dead.

Bin Laden threatens Europe

Osama bin Laden in Al Dschasira
Osama bin Laden.Image: AP

In November 2002, a tape attributed to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened Britain, Germany, France and Italy as well as Canada and Australia that “You will be killed just as you killed and you will be bombed just as you bomb." The result being that officials across the continent and in Germany and France in particular, issued statements warning the people of Europe that they needed to be aware that the risk of a terror attack happening on European soil was both “real and high.”

Just before last Christmas, three Muslim extremists were arrested in Paris after investigations by French police led to the recovery of numerous chemicals in their apartment. In early January, British police raided a London flat where four North African men were apprehended and charged with manufacturing the deadly toxin ricin. It would appear that there is increasing justification for the high levels of alert in Europe and the belief that it is only a matter of time before a European city is targeted.

Anti-Terror Übung in Frankreich
Euratox 2002.Image: AP

In October 2002, the European Commission carried out the Euratox 2002 trials where crisis teams from France, Austria, Spain, Greece, Italy and Sweden were tested in a situation where a simulated toxic agent was sprayed over a camp at Conjuers in France.

Germany increases its preparation

Plans for exercises similar to those carried out across the United States and most recently in London, are being considered by the German government. But a spokesperson at the Federal Ministry of the Interior told Deutsche Welle that the government has no concrete plans at the moment to carry out any "worst case scenario" catastrophe training in any major German city.

However, the German government has already taken steps in preperation of a possible NBC attack. It has provided the 16 German states with a total of 367 state-of-the-art nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) detection vehicles. These are the country's first mobile response vehicles and would be called into action in the event of an attack to determine the threat.

A bottle of smallpox vaccine.Image: AP

The government has also stockpiled 35 million doses of smallpox vaccine -- enough for nearly half the population of Germany -- and is in the process of acquiring enough vaccine for the entire population in preparation of a biological attack.

It has also recently set up a new high-level agency, the Federal Office for Civil Protection and Emergency Response which will serve as the German government's central organizational unit for civil security.

The French Interior Ministry could not be drawn on its own plans for future drills but would continue to take part in future European initiatives similar to Euratox 2002.