We asked an expert if London could fall

Like on those film posters

London is falling. London Has Fallen all over London: on the sides of buses, on billboards. On advertising spaces across the city we are being told of its fictional destruction. You can’t move around here without seeing this apocalyptic image:


London Has Fallen stars Gerard Butler as someone who shoots loads and loads of terrorists. The latter have attacked London on the day of the British PM’s funeral, kidnapping the US President and destroying Big Ben, Westminster Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral in the process. This is the vibe:

How plausible is the scenario depicted in the movie? Should we expect something like this, minus Gerard Butler shouting the word “fuckheadistan” at the baddies, in the future?

I spoke to Dr David Betz, a reader at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London about London Has Fallen and the current threat posed by terrorism to London. Dr Betz has advised or worked with the UK MOD and GCHQ on strategic issues, counterinsurgency and stabilisation doctrine, cyberspace and cyber strategy and advised British commanders in Afghanistan.

How plausible are the events depicted in London Has Fallen? Is it conceivable?

It doesn’t sound very plausible, no. It’s not completely inconceivable either. There have been a number of thwarted attacks where people have attempted to set off a truck bomb or a car bomb in the UK. If you had a big truck bomb on Westminster Bridge or at the base of Big Ben the blast wall would not be enough to protect it.

Generally speaking, in terms of terrorists attacking things, the last thing they’re going to strike is a hard target like Big Ben, or a world leader’s funeral. You can guarantee that the one place security forces are going to be is surrounding the Prime Minister and other important figures. The one thing that really concerns the Metropolitan Police, and the police of any other major city now, is coordinated attacks on soft targets, like university campuses and hotels.

In which case you have a small team of active shooters, or even just one. Take the Mumbai attacks which involved a small team of eight or ten guys, the attacks on the Kenyan shopping mall which was eight or ten again, the Bataclan attacks – those things are plausible, they actually happen.

As I understand the premise of London Has Fallen, involving a massive, coordinated commando attack on all of these highly secure facilities and these VIP figures, it simply isn’t very plausible, because what these terrorists want to do is attack the soft targets.

Has there been a shift then in terrorist mentality, from the 9/11 style attacks, things like embassy bombings, to the gunmen in shopping malls style? Why has that shift occurred? Simply because such attacks are easier? 

I think there has been a certain shift in tactics. One of the hallmarks of the contemporary jihadist style attack is to [do] multiple attacks occurring simultaneously or in sequence, which are coordinated to progressively disorient and stretch out the security forces, to lengthen the duration of the attack. That’s fairly new.

One of the things the movie focuses on is the propaganda value of what the terrorists do. They kidnap the US President and have him captive on a live internet stream. How much does the psychological element play a part in the planning of these attacks? 

It’s the most important aspect of them. You need to understand these attacks as propaganda exercises first and foremost. The whole point of conducting these attacks is to attract attention to the cause. Take the attack on Munich Olympics as an example. Why does it happen there? Because half of the world’s media is in Munich at that point. You’ve got access to the eyeballs of half the world’s population.

These attacks are designed to generate attention. Their key significance is not in terms of material damage, even in numbers of dead. Terrorism is not a particularly efficient way of killing. Just think of this country seventy years ago, we’d be talking about V-1 and V-2 terror bombings of London. On a daily basis you’d half missiles with two thousand pound warheads blowing apart city blocks. That bombing campaign killed 60,000 thousand people in London.

From what I’ve read about the V-2s, they didn’t seem to have the intended effect of British morale. Whereas today, with ISIS, who haven’t launched any rockets at London, the prevailing atmosphere seems to be one of hysteria. Are we easier to terrorise? 

I wouldn’t underestimate the extent to which the Nazi blitz affected morale. Certainly it didn’t break the back of the British population. But at the time the government was enormously concerned about the morale effect, which was significant. Every time a bomb went off in south London, you’d have men putting down tools in factories and going home to see if it was their home and their family which had been blown up. The government poured a huge amount of effort into destroying the German rocket production and launch facilities. I think there’s a tendency to underestimate how unsettling the Blitz was.

That brings us nicely to the history of London. It has been attacked many times. It was sacked by Boudicca, blitzed by the Nazis – generally how difficult is it to make a city fall? When you have millions of people in one space – 

It’s exceedingly, exceedingly difficult. Cities are enormously resilient. They can take a huge pounding and keep going. The striking thing is when you look at the imagery of cities which have been very heavily bombed, and you see these lunar landscapes, these Dante-esque scenes of ruination, you’d be surprised at how small the actual civilian death toll is.

Why is that? Because it’s easy to take shelter? 

Yes, people take shelter, people leave – it’s actually quite hard to blow apart a city. Take Sarajevo for example. It was on the receiving end of an enormous bombardment. Thousands and thousands of rounds of artillery rained down on it. There’s hardly a place in that city that doesn’t have a shrapnel pockmark on it. But that was a functioning city throughout and it’s thriving now.

In terms of security and what we have in place for protecting cities and big events, are you confident that we can prevent terrorist attacks. Or are we looking at a when rather than if it happens situation? 

I’m very much in the latter camp – when it happens. We will have a multiple shooter attack, just like Paris, here in London. It could be this afternoon, it could be next year. It’ll happen, most definitely. The elements required to pull that off are not all that difficult: you need a small group of people willing to pull the trigger, to stand in front of some terrified civilian and to blow them away – there are such people, we know this, and they are not in short supply.

It defies common sense to think that a well financed, well organised group couldn’t get access to weapons. And what sort of training do you need? Basically you need the level of training you’d get from a basic infantry course, a few weeks in the TA.

It’s not that difficult. It will happen in London.

God, OK. Finally then, this struggle against the jihadists, against the caliphate and all the splinter groups, is this a generational struggle? I’m 22, will it last the duration of my life? Are we going to have to get used to terrorism as a kind of urban pollution, something you just expect and wait for? Is there any kind of hope that we can avoid it?

I wouldn’t phrase it quite that way. But yes, it is a generational thing. It will affect you throughout your whole life, probably your children’s too. I think the broader question is: can you maintain a cohesive society under the circumstances where, every once in a while, say every six months, you get some Bataclan style attack, someone standing with the severed head of a toddler outside Piccadilly Circus station, waving the head, screaming “Allahu Akbar” and “I am your death” – as happened in Moscow this week.

These sorts of things are going to happen, of that I think there is absolutely no doubt. To me they look likely to happen with increasing frequency. The trick is going to be how to hold your society together under these conditions, and honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea how that’s done. I’ve not seen one plausible argument from our government on that point. I think they avoid the topic because it’s so awful to consider.

It will take a generation to deal with this.

The threat seems so unconventional – the idea organisations like ISIS promote amongst groups in our society is so alluring. It’s so difficult for us to combat because we’re unable to articulate a united set of values that everyone can agree on.  We don’t seem to have a collective set of values. Is that we this struggle is so difficult for us to win? Judging by what you’ve just said it seems as if, basically, we’re pretty screwed. 

That is the problem, particularly if you’re a society that, for whatever reason, really struggles to articulate a compelling world view of its own. And if you’re in a struggle with an intensely romantic movement, of which ISIS is merely a part, than yeah, you’re have a real struggle. It’s depressing.