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Anti-terrorist training: necessity or a step too far?

 The Big Issue in the North (UK) 09 July 2019

As part of Project Griffin, private security guards and public sector workers all over the United Kingdom are trained in counter-terrorism methods by special police forces. But is this this type of training simply teaching everyday workers’ to be over-suspicious? (773 Words) - By Phil Chamberlain

BI North

Photo: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

The soundless montage on the video was familiar but still shocking. Planes crashing into the Twin Towers. The aftermath of the Bali nightclub bombings. Eerie mobile phone footage of the 7/7 London bombings. Finally, that burning car wedged in the entrance to Glasgow Airport. Over this, on a loop, a woman sang in a breathy Irish accent: "I will find you if it takes a thousand years."

It seemed incongruous to be watching this while sitting in an anonymous office building at East Midlands Airport on a wet Thursday morning with staff from local businesses. For the police officers running the Project Griffin training course, though, it was all about making the link between terrorism abroad and attacks at home.

Hundreds of private security guards and public sector workers across the north have been trained over the last few years to act as the police's eyes and ears in combating terrorism.

The major threat in the UK remains an al-Qaeda attack on a shopping centre, tourist landmark or other soft but high profile target. Since the first line of security at those venues is private security guards, Project Griffin aims to brief these personnel on what to look out for.

The idea is that they, as well as local authority staff, can both act as intelligence gatherers and, should an incident occur, aid the emergency services in securing areas.

Project Griffin was developed by City of London Police in 2004. The template has been taken up by around 20 forces across the country, as well as branches protecting airports. Back at East Midlands Airport, and Leicester's Police Counter Terrorism Security Advisor (CTSA) Det Con Ray Towersey was making it clear to people that they were on the frontline.

"Terrorist plots occur across the UK," he said. "It is not just a London problem. If you have any preconceptions of what a terrorist looks like, forget it."

Towersey also made clear that, while al-Qaeda was the main threat, attacks could come from other directions. He listed animal rights activists, environmental groups, Irish republican splinter organisations and fathers' rights groups as potential sources.

Each force adapts the basic Project Griffin formula for its own needs. Greater Manchester Police has a Griffin training session booked in every month until March next year. Delegates get information on, among other things, city centre evacuation plans. Those who have signed up can take part in monthly conference calls with the force's CTSAs to get the latest threat assessments.

Det Insp Andy Brown of Greater Manchester Police's Counter Terrorist Unit said: "We are extremely pleased local security personnel have pledged their support to Project Griffin. With their help we can ensure Greater Manchester is a hostile environment for terrorist activity and, in turn, a safer place."

At the airport, it was the turn of the army bomb disposal team to give a talk on the kind of devices it dealt with and the steps security staff should take if they see a suspect package. There followed another video montage of bombings from Ireland to Iraq - this time set to Robbie Williams singing Angel.

A key part of any Project Griffin training is spotting hostile reconnaissance - the intelligence gathering terrorists carry out before an attack. But there has been criticism that Griffin encourages private security staff to start seeing a terrorist in every innocent photographer.

According to advice from Greater Manchester Police, released to The Big Issue in the North under the Freedom of Information Act, suspicious activity includes: "People taking pictures or notes of the security measures at a building. Tourists taking pictures of each other with buildings in the background should be treated sensitively but also considered."

In the City of London, security guards and police have stopped and detained many innocent students and tourists because of suspicions over what they were photographing. At the airport briefing, CTSA David Randall finished the session by encouraging attendees to think about what was unusual, and therefore needed reporting.

"The baseline is normal or usual activity - the general movement of people where you work or at home," he said. "What it looks like and what it sounds like.

"What is unusual is what conflicts with that baseline. It is a sixth sense.

"Ask yourself, what you have seen and why did it not feel right?"

Inspector Tony Marson, who runs Project Griffin at the airport, said giving people the confidence to call in suspicious activity was key.

It was not just the awareness of spotting something out of the ordinary, he emphasised, but knowing that every scrap of information could be important, and should not be left to someone else to report.


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Originally published by The Big Issue in the North. ©