Graham Cox is former Head of Sussex CID. He was Conservative candidate for Hove in 2015.
When the Provisional IRA (PIRA) were planting bombs in England they often, but not always, gave a warning before the explosion. Sometimes the warning was deliberately vague or misleading, resulting in evacuations which put people in greater danger than if there had been no warning at all.
It would be wrong therefore to see the warnings as some kind of noble act; they were designed by the bombers to maim and discredit the police as much as to reduce casualties.
I was often asked how the police knew a bomb warning was genuine. At the time it would have been wrong to talk about it, but it is generally known now that ‘genuine’ warnings included a known code word.
In short a person claiming to represent the PIRA, or the even more brutal Irish National Liberation Army (INLA), would phone a hospital switchboard or a media outlet (eg a national newspaper or a BBC radio station). They rarely contacted the police direct in order to add further confusion to the process. The message would be along the lines of “This is from INLA. There is a bomb outside the stock exchange and it is due to go off at 2.30pm. The codeword is ‘x’.”
Typically the warning would be only minutes before the alleged time of detonation, giving insufficient time to respond. Training had been given to likely receivers of such warnings, so they knew to contact the police as soon as possible. The reported codeword would then be checked against a database of codewords which had proved to be genuine in the past. If the codeword was recognised then obviously the threat from the warning was more likely to be real.
Some of the ‘genuine’ codewords also proved to be hoaxes, leading to a phenomenon that we came to describe as ’10p terrorism.’ The most infamous example was when the use of a genuine codeword led to the evacuation of Aintree racecourse, and the cancellation of the Grand National. For the cost of a phone call (ten pence) terrorists could cause massive disruption, evacuations and even the cancellation of an iconic sporting event.
Terrorists are not stupid. They learn from previous campaigns and it seems we may be seeing a return to the days of 10p terrorism. Following the awful attacks in Paris by ISIL and its associates, authorities all over the world are on edge. As a result a combination of warnings and (hopefully) intelligence an international football match was cancelled in Germany, and this week schools across the whole of California were shut. In each case there was no actual attack – terrorists had succeeded in spreading terror by sending a hoax email or bragging on social media.
The difficult bit is in determining how we should respond to this threat. It is easiest to adopt a safety first approach – to shut places down, close schools, cancel events – as ‘protecting our children must be the highest priority.’
Yet this approach gives the terrorists exactly what they want, spreading fear and cutting to the very heart of our freedom to go about our normal business in an open, democratic society.
Those in authority (police, council leaders, politicians, security services) charged with making these immensely difficult decisions with insufficient and contradictory advice, need to be brave and ‘keep calm and carry on.’ They may get it wrong on one occasion – and that is when they will deserve our full support for getting it right most of the time. If we do otherwise we are all complicit in letting the terrorists, who want to destroy our way of life, win.