LONDON — Fighter jets thunder above the English countryside. Missiles stand ready. And Big Brother is watching like never before.
Hundreds of American intelligence, security and law enforcement officials are flying across the Atlantic for the games that begin July 27. Some will even be embedded with their British counterparts, sharing critical intelligence and troubleshooting potential risks. Dozens of Interpol officers will also be deployed.
The unique collaboration is rooted in common threats the partners have faced since the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the U.S. and Britain’s own deadly suicide bombings in 2005.
Britain was America’s closest ally in Afghanistan and Iraq, making it a prime target of Islamic terror groups. And dozens of recent terror plots, including the 2006 plot to blow up nearly a dozen trans-Atlantic airliners, have been hatched within Britain’s sizable Muslim population, more than 1 million of whom have ties to Pakistan.
Although other Olympics have taken place since 9/11 — Salt Lake City, Athens, Turin, Beijing and Vancouver — London poses a different breed of security challenge.
“I’m confident that there is more than adequate security here for these games,” Louis Susman, the U.S. ambassador to the U.K., told the Associated Press. “That said, we live in a tumultuous world, whether that be in New York or London.”
Intelligence officials say there has been an expected increase in chatter among extremist groups but there are still no specific or credible threats to the London games. The terror level is labeled substantial, a notch below severe and what it has been for much of the past decade. A substantial threat level indicates that an attack is a strong possibility.
“There is a perception in some quarters that the terrorist threat to this country has evaporated,” said Jonathan Evans, head of Britain’s domestic spy agency of MI5. “Bin Laden is dead, al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan is under serious pressure and there hasn’t been a major terror attack here for seven years. (But) in back rooms and in cars and on the streets of this country, there is no shortage of individuals talking about wanting to mount terrorist attacks here.”
The potential threats to the London games are broad and diverse — a lone wolf attacker such as Norway’s Anders Behring Breivik who confessed to killing 77 people; a possible non-Asian Muslim convert who could slip by security with a European passport; a coordinated strike like the Sept. 11 terror attacks or a debilitating cyber-attack.
Although al Qaeda has been weakened by targeted U.S. strikes, its affiliates in places like Somalia and Yemen have stepped up their activity and increased their capabilities. They’ve even been working on bombs that can go undetected in airport scans.
British security officials fear that dozens of nationals who went to train in Somalia and elsewhere could eventually return.
“Terrorist problems have a long tail,” said Evans. “They very rarely just stop.”
Up to 1 million visitors are expected for the games, putting added strain on border security agents at airports like London’s Heathrow, which has been criticized for its long lines and lack of staff to screen those arriving from other countries.
On site, some 300,000 people are expected to flow into Olympic Park in east London each day during peak times.