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Christmas threats loom in Britain

Police warned Britons Monday of the heightened risk of terrorism leading up to Christmas. But, hardened by 30 years of IRA activity, Londoners will not let fear disrupt their schedules for long.
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In the countdown to the Christmas holiday, crowds of shoppers fill central London daily. But the festive mood belies the threat that lurks this holiday season, the increased threat of terrorism.

This week, police warned Britons to be “vigilant,” advising them to look out for suspicious packages and cars. The advisory came less than a month after the public was alerted to the possibility of a chemical gas attack on the subway system.

But, hardened by 30 years of terror by the Irish Republican Army — dedicated to ending British rule in Northern Ireland — Britons will not let fear disrupt their schedules for long.

“Britons, especially Londoners, have always been aware of this type of threat due to the IRA,” said Stuart Seger, a civil engineer. “I think we’re a very realistic nation — it takes more to spook us than other nations. None of the people I know have changed any of their plans (due to the threat of terrorism).”

Since Sept. 11, 2001, security has been stepped up in key cities across Europe. And London is far from immune to the threat posed by al-Qaida, the Islamic terrorist organization held responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

In August, a Swedish man of Tunisian origin was arrested on suspicion of attempting to hijack a plane destined for London’s Stansted airport. The British media reported that his target allegedly was the U.S. Embassy — situated in the heart of the city’s shopping district. Swedish authorities have since released the man, citing a lack of evidence.

Then, in November, three North Africans were arrested in London on suspicion of planning a chemical attack on the Underground. In the same month, Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a speech, “At the moment, barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence coming via our security services about a threat to UK interests.”

Further increasing anxiety, the British media recently reported that all households in the country would soon receive “terror survival plans,” and police warned Britons to be wary of seasonal terrorist activity.

“We consider it timely,” said a spokesman for Scotland Yard, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When large numbers of people may be gathered shopping and for New Year’s, it is necessary to warn the public.”


Localized threats coupled with the nightclub bombings in Bali, Indonesia, in which 24 Britons were among the nearly 190 killed, and the suicide attack on an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, have created spurts of anxiety beneath the gray of London’s skyline.

InsertArt(1741868)“Right after the scare of attacks on the Underground, buses were much more full,” said Zora Alba, an art vendor.” The bus I take in the morning is usually so empty you can go to sleep on it — after the scare it was hard to find a seat.”

But a spokesperson for the London Underground, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there was no noticeable drop in passenger levels following the scare and commented, “most people feel safer on the railway than on the roads.”

A woman from Sierra Leone who has lived in London for five years and asked not to be identified, said, “Of course the first few days after an attack happens you think about it. But you have to get used to it — it’s part of life to move on.”

Referring to the effects of the 11-year civil war that ravaged her west African country, she said, ” In my hometown you see people who cannot work because their hands were chopped off, who cannot walk because they have no feet. But if I worried about all the terrible things, I’d never go home.”


The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon came as startling revelations of America’s vulnerability, but Britons have been plagued by the terrorist acts of the IRA since the 1960’s.

Sean Tipton, spokesman for the Association of British Travel Agents, which is responsible for the sale of more than 80 percent of UK-sold vacations, said that the effect of terrorism “is less exaggerated in the UK than in other countries. You have to remember we’ve dealt with 30 years of terrorism; the U.K. is very resilient.”


Still, the British media recently startled the nation with reports that the government is drafting a “terror survival plan,” to be delivered to every household in the country.

Reports said authorities would publicize emergency plans on how to cope with biological, nuclear and chemical attacks early next year and that the British government has already placed orders for large quantities of decontamination suits and body bags.

Simon Watts, a spokesman for the government, denied the specifics of the reports but said, “there is a public information campaign about advising and warning the public. The government is working with proposals now.”

The British government must walk a fine line between informing and frightening the public.

“We’re seeking to reassure the public,” said the Scotland Yard spokesman, referring to Monday’s warning. “It is not our intention to raise fear; we just want public to be vigilant.”

And it won’t be easy to deter Londoners. As senior citizen Catherine Hamilton said, “I’m not afraid. If people are afraid, that’s sad because they miss out.”

Jennifer Carlile is an intern at