Britain has just disrupted an Islamic State-inspired plot to assassinate Prime Minister, Theresa May.
That's good news, but this is a wake up call to the fact that the Prime Minister needs better security.
The disrupted plot is not so much the issue here: The two suspects had an impractical plan to detonate explosives to gain entry to Downing Street and then either use knives or explosives to assassinate May. But even if the gate had been destroyed in the initial explosion (which is unlikely), Downing Street is well-protected by heavily armed police officers. The Number 10 doorman wouldn't have just opened the door for two marauding terrorists.
Still, the Prime Minister needs better security when she is mobile, or otherwise outside of Downing Street. There are number of specific weaknesses with the current state of protective affairs.
First off, May's security detail is too small. This is best evidenced by the size of her motorcades, which are far smaller than those of U.S. officials.
As illustrated in the video below, May's motorcade almost always involves motorcycle outriders from the Metropolitan Police's Special Escort Group, her vehicle (a Jaguar XJ Sentinel), and one or two Land Rover or Range Rover escort cars carrying officers from the Metropolitan Police's Royalty and Specialist Protection Command. One or more other vehicles carry staff, and the motorcade is completed by a marked police car.
In contrast, consider the significantly larger motorcade provided by the Secret Service when May visits the U.S.
Other substantial differences exist between May's protection and that of other foreign leaders.
Most notably, the Prime Minister's detail does not regularly close roads in advance of the motorcade (although the SEG are world leaders at rolling traffic holds), nor do they travel with the support of a counterassault team. The latter issue is not an absence of capability: The Metropolitan Police's CTSFO firearms team plays a counterassault role for foreign leaders at high risk (such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the U.S. president) on visits to Britain.
This all invites the obvious question: Why, if the threat level is significant, are British protection details so small?
Two reasons. First, fearing public ridicule, British politicians are desperate to avoid being perceived as overprotected or coddled. The best evidence of this concern came with May's predecessor, David Cameron, who temporarily got rid of his motorcycle outriders. Yet, the perception issue is also rendered in how details operate in public. On a rope line, for example, the Secret Service will surround a protectee and agents will operate at the "hands ready" position. In contrast, British protection officers will hang back from their protectee so as to allow a more intimate experience with the public. It's good public relations but comes with the cost of a higher risk premium.
Second, protective operations are just not as well-resourced in Britain as in America. Where the U.S. government operates distinct protective agencies such as the Secret Service and the Diplomatic Security Service, British Metropolitan Police commanders must balance protection resourcing with other compelling specialist operational taskings such as counterterrorism. Facing budget cuts in recent years, these choices have become increasingly complicated.
Britain's neglect of dedicated protective resourcing also has a negative impact on training and operational procedure. Consider, for example, that where the Secret Service's protection-specific training for new agents is 18 weeks in duration, I believe the Metropolitan Police course is only four weeks long. This translates into inadequate capability: In recent years, the Prime Minister's security detail has suffered two embarrassing failures.
The first incident came in Oct. 2014, when a jogger was able to run into then-Prime Minister David Cameron as he walked to his car. Cameron's detail then abandoned him for a couple of seconds in order to deal with the confused jogger. That was a mistake. Standard protection protocol, as rendered repeatedly by the Secret Service for Trump, Clinton, and Sanders during last year's presidential campaign, demands that the detail close up around a protectee in such situations. The priority is always to focus on the protectee and mitigate the success of any secondary attack.
The second incident came in March 2017, when a terrorist gained entry to the Parliamentary compound and murdered a police officer before being shot dead. Theresa May's security detail appeared chaotic as they sought to evacuate her.
Don't get me wrong, while the Secret Service has had its share of failures, most (but not all) have been related to the protection of the White House compound. In contrast, the agency's various details have performed superbly in recent years.
So, yes, it's a tribute to the skill of the British Security Service and its police partners that the most recent assassination plot was disrupted. Still, this threat should be a wake up call. British protection efforts need greater resourcing and political deference (for example, let a detail officer stand close to protectees on the rope line).