The face of British policing has been changed forever by the revelation that suicide bombers have struck for the first time in this country.
For several years police chiefs had been preparing for the day that fanatics prepared to take their own lives commit an outrage on British streets. Police had visited Israel and Sri Lanka, which have suffered many suicide attacks, and had sent out guidance to officers on how to tackle a suspected bomber. But last week's atrocities in central London have turned a theoretical exercise into one with a chilling relevance to everyday policing.
Armed officers responding to alerts will follow a "shoot-to-kill" policy, while further security precautions will be taken in buildings regarded as prime targets. It is also understood that fresh advice has been circulated to chief constables in the wake of last Thursday's atrocities, who in turn have passed the information to front-line officers.
British planning for a suicide bombing predates 11 September, but was given fresh impetus by those attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. After leading a police delegation to Israel and Sri Lanka, Barbara Wilding, then a deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, produced a confidential report in 2003 on how to tackle the threat in Britain.
Its general advice for officers was not to challenge suspected bombers, but to alert anti-terrorist officers immediately. If the terrorist appears to be about to blow himself up, officers are told to move passers-by discreetly away from him.
Armed police officers arriving on the scene will be operating a shoot-to-kill policy, aiming for the terrorist's head. They will not shoot at the chest, as is the practice in Britain, for fear that would detonate explosives strapped around the bomber.
Police are testing mobile or hand-held scanners that can detect hidden weapons or bombs packed with nails and bolts. Work is also under way on how bomb-sniffer dogs can be deployed in the fight against suicide bombers.
The National Suicide Terrorist working group, comprising senior officers, regularly updates its advice to chief constables. A police source said: "It is ongoing work. Many of its projects are under constant review."
One effect of the attacks is that public buildings will have to adapt their security checks. Metal detector machines are likely to be moved outside buildings to minimise the carnage if a bomb is detonated and the number of entrances minimised.
But Ms Wilding has confessed that the potential targets are numerous and diverse, including large sports stadiums and shopping centres. That leaves police with having to rely on intelligence work as they try to track down home-grown suicide bombers.
Many are likely to be only very loosely affiliated to terrorists and to be living outwardly respectable, conventional lives.Reuse content