POSTER ASKING MEMBERS OF PUBLIC TO REPORT SUSPECT BAGS IS SEEN AT VICTORIA UNDERGROUND STATION LONDON
David Bebber  /  Reuters file
A passenger walks past a poster asking members of the public to report suspect bags at an underground station in central London on March 14.
By Reporter
NBC News
updated 3/22/2004 11:57:10 AM ET 2004-03-22T16:57:10

This city is on high alert in the aftermath of the al-Qaida attack on Madrid, which killed nearly 200 people and brought home the chilling reality that the British capital could be next.

Britain was placed on its second highest security alert "severe general" last November ahead of President Bush's state visit to the United Kingdom. It has remained there ever since.

Britain is seen as a prime target for al-Qaida operatives because of its support for the United States during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its continued involvement in the war on terror.

'Attacks inevitable'  
Speaking at a press conference held by the London mayor at City Hall last week, Metropolitan police commissioner Sir John Stevens said, “We do know that we have actually stopped terrorist attacks happening in London but, as the Prime Minister and home secretary have said, there is an inevitability that some sort of attack will get through.”

Stevens also suggested that if there are indications of a significant threat, the British army could also be mobilized onto the streets of London.

The London Underground train system, which transports as many as 3 million passengers around the capital a day, has been identified by the police as a target particularly susceptible to a terrorist attack.  

A new poster campaign around stations has been launched warning passengers to be extra vigilant and on the look out for suspect packages. Plain-clothed police are also patrolling the network, enforced with powers to stop and search anyone acting suspiciously. 

The heightened alert has not gone unnoticed by passengers. “In the past I have thought about the threat of an attack, but only from time to time,” said Sophie Macgregor, a commuter from West London. “This thing in Madrid though has made me feel a little nervous.” 

Simply unprepared’
Londoners last weekend received further cause for concern when Patrick Cunningham, Chief of the Emergency Planning Society, told the Independent on Sunday newspaper that the city was totally unprepared for any major terrorist attack. Citing local authority planners, he said authorities would only be able to offer "a token gesture of support" if London were to suffer an incident on the scale of that witnessed in Madrid. 

Cunningham believes that the 19 million GBP ($35 million) budget for emergency planning is simply not enough. Global dragnet

And the experts seem to agree. “The number of police available who are trained to deal with chemical attacks on a city is very small,” said Charles Shoebridge, security analyst and former anti-terrorist intelligence officer. “Extra money has been made available to meet these situations but it is a drop in the ocean to what is required.”

‘Seen it before’
London however is no stranger to external threats. The capital was subject to consistent terrorist bomb attacks by the IRA in the 1980’s, most notably when a bomb exploded outside Harrods Shopping store in December 1983, killing six and injuring 90 over the Christmas period.

“The IRA campaigns during this period of course makes Londoners psychologically prepared for an attack. It provided the intelligence agencies with useful experience. Hopefully they can redirect this experience toward fighting the threat of Islamic extremism,”  Shoebridge said.

On Monday, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and his European Union counterparts met in Brussels to discuss ways in which the European community can share each other’s intelligence in a bid to prevent attacks.

In the meantime, Londoners continue to go about their daily lives in the hope that the security services who protect their city stay prepared and on guard.

Henry Deedes is an assignment editor in the NBC News London bureau.

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