May 17, 2012 | 12:17 GMT

9 mins read

London 2012 Olympics: A Threat Assessment


Update: July 6, 2012

Five men and a woman were arrested in various early morning raids July 5 near London's Olympic Park. The suspects are accused of participating in an Islamist extremist terrorist plot that could have involved British targets. Though the alleged conspiracy is said to have been unrelated to the Olympic Games, which begin July 27, British security services remain at a heightened state of vigilance given the attractiveness of the games as a target for terrorist attacks, protests, strikes and cyber and local crime.


London will host the 2012 Olympics from July 27 to Aug. 12 and the 2012 Paralympics from Aug. 29 to Sept. 9. It will be the third time the Olympics have been held in the United Kingdom. The British government has spent several years and 900 million pounds ($1.46 billion) on security alone preparing for the games.

Numerous high-profile events have been held in London without significant security incidents, and the 2012 Olympic Games are unlikely to be different. However, protests, strikes, and computer and local crime can be expected.


Nearly 15,000 athletes and an estimated 4 million visitors are expected to visit London during the games. The city has been the site of many high-profile events, including two previous Olympic Games in 1908 and 1948. The United Kingdom also hosted the 1996 UEFA European Football Championship, known as Euro 96, and the 2005 G-8 Summit in Scotland. Having hosted so many large-scale events, the United Kingdom's security forces possess the experience and numbers necessary to provide for a safe Olympic Games.

Security Preparations

London Olympics Venues and Torch Route map

Areas most likely to experience disruptions or attacks will be venues containing large, concentrated numbers of Olympic participants and spectators (such as the Olympic Stadium and Olympic Park) as well as open venues (such as The Mall, Hampton Court Palace and Hyde Park) involving the marathon, triathlon and cycling events. In preparation, the Metropolitan Police Service has implemented extensive security measures to cover land, air and water. The Metropolitan Police will lead a total of 23,700 security forces in securing the games. Other elements involved in Olympic security operations will include:

  • 1,500 officers from security forces around the United Kingdom
  • 10,400 personnel of G4S, a private security contractor (G4S will be in charge of Olympic venue security, which includes 30 sporting venues and more than 70 "non-competition venues," such as car parks and hotels)
  • Soldiers of the Royal Navy and Royal Marines and members of the Metropolitan Police Service's Marine Unit
  • Hundreds of U.S. security officials from the State Department's Diplomatic Security Service, FBI and other agencies
  • Thousands of local volunteers equipped with minimal police training

Militant Threat 

According to the Home Office, the current threat level from international and regional militants, including Northern Irish militants, is substantial, meaning an attack in the United Kingdom is a "strong possibility." However, the threat level does not necessarily suggest a particular danger to the Olympics.

The route of the 70-day Olympic Torch Relay, which will begin May 19 and end July 27, will take the torch through Portrush, Londonderry, Newry and Belfast in Northern Ireland from June 3 to June 6. Newry and Belfast represent particular security challenges because of Northern Irish militant activity. But these militant groups have not demonstrated the intent or capability to conduct attacks in Britain for more than a decade, making such an attack on the Olympics highly unlikely.

There has only been one direct threat issued against the Olympics. An al Qaeda-linked extremist by the name of Abu Hija Ansari detailed a plan online that included mixing cyanide into a hand cream, allowing the poison to be absorbed through the skin. The many logistical constraints of that particular plot make its execution unlikely, although that does not mean international extremists, especially grassroots jihadists, will not try it and other plots. Attacks by grassroots jihadists are particularly difficult to intercept and prevent, but the actors behind those attacks usually lack the sophistication to carry out a large-scale attack, especially in a country with well-prepared security forces.

Protests and Strikes

The London Games are much more likely to experience disruptions from protests and strikes than from militant attacks. Because the Olympics are highly publicized international events, protest groups could use them to attract global attention to their cause.

Protests by Groups

Many of the protest campaigns involving the London Olympics are targeting controversial sponsors of the games. Three organizations — the London Mining Network, Bhopal Medical Appeal and the UK Tar Sands Network — teamed up for a campaign in March they called The Greenwash Gold 2012. The campaign targeted Adidas, Nike and Puma, all of which are Olympic sponsors. Online campaigns and a couple of sit-ins at sponsors' meetings have been held in connection with The Greenwash Gold 2012, but there has been no violence or destruction as a result of the protests. The campaign is unlikely to result in anything more than minor disruptions at the games.

A handful of individuals have participated in protest campaigns against Dow Chemical Co., British Petroleum and Rio Tinto Group, also sponsors of the games. These protesters, a combination of groups and individuals organized around the London Olympics and members of the Occupy London movement, make up the Counter Olympics Network (CON). The CON has said that it does not oppose the Olympics but that it would use the games to create publicity for its group. Based on CON's stated goals and previous campaigns, violent protests by the network are not expected. However, the network could utilize violence and disruption of Olympic and city activities to highlight its cause.

The Occupy London movement has also protested aspects of the London Olympics. A member of the movement, Kerry-anne Mendoza, created a group in March called Reclaim London 2012 that consists of an unspecified 30 organizations. Reclaim London 2012 has discussed disrupting the Olympics by blocking temporary traffic lanes devoted to the games and by presenting security obstacles at unnamed Olympic events.

Reclaim London 2012 also called a global strike for July 27, when the Olympic flame is to be lit. In addition, a day of action has been called for July 28 at the Bishopsgate Institute of London, about 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the Olympic Park, though it is unclear what this action will entail.

If a strike were to occur at the start of the games, it could disrupt some events, but on the whole the Reclaim London 2012 group has not shown itself to be violent. Though there is always the possibility of violence when scores of disgruntled individuals gather, the protests are not set to occur within the Olympic Games Park, which will help lessen the threat to the Olympics, its attendants and its participants. Should demonstrations near the Olympic Park turn violent, security forces in London will be prepared to subdue them.

Protests by Individuals

Individuals operating without the help of protest groups also have the ability to disrupt the games, especially in open venues. As recently as April 8 a protester jumped into the Thames River — which will be used for the London Olympics — during a boat race between Oxford and Cambridge universities. Such demonstrations will be difficult to prevent, but they are unlikely to utilize violence.

Local Strikes

Bus drivers from the Unite trade union warned during a large protest May 11 in central London that they would strike during the Olympic Games in protest of their pay levels. An estimated 400,000 demonstrators took part in a legal protest, which was in response to government-imposed austerity measures and was not connected to the London Olympics. Approximately 30,000 off-duty police officers also were present to protest staffing cuts.

The May 11 protest was peaceful, and the fact that it was a legal demonstration meant the security forces provided were sufficient. Future, related protests are also likely to be legal, which will make them easier for security forces to control. The protests are not expected to significantly disrupt the games, since that is an outcome that neither the union workers nor the city wants to see.

While virtually all of the protests related to the Olympics thus far have been peaceful, more sophisticated and violent protest groups could be waiting for the start of the games to act. The games are a great public forum for each group to draw attention to its cause, and if the apparent coordination between activist groups ahead of the London Olympics is any indication, large and persistent protests can be expected during the games. Police can arrest protesters who demonstrate illegally and a few brief, intense flare-ups should be expected.

Street Crime

Street crime is another, less disrupting activity that will be prevalent at the Olympic Games. The athletes, spectators and sponsors at Olympic venues all serve as potential victims for local criminals. London is a relatively safe and stable city, but visitors are particularly likely to be targeted by street criminals.

In preparation for the games, the British government expanded London police forces and brought in additional police units from other British cities. With the elevated police presence, crime at Olympic venues will probably be relatively low. However, due to the depleted police presence outside of London, crime in surrounding British cities could increase during the games.

Online Threats

Already online criminals have sought to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the London Olympics. Internet criminals have used phishing attacks, in which the attacker tries to acquire personal information from the target, and ticket touting, in which fake websites are set up claiming to be affiliated with Olympics ticket sales and services in an attempt to acquire information and money. Other potential incidents include distributed denial of service attacks against Olympics-related websites and malware attacks on Olympics' website servers designed to steal information or plant malicious code. However, the Olympics' Technology Operations Center has prepared for such attacks and will help to mitigate the effects of any breach or damage to the Olympics' servers.


Hosting an event like the Olympic and Paralympic Games is an extraordinary challenge for any country. A wide range of actors, from militants to protest groups, will hope to use the public platform such an event provides to gain attention. The security apparatus put in place for the games will go far to help thwart potential attacks, but despite the security effort, street crime, online crime and protests are highly likely to occur.

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