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Fred Burton, Startfor's vice president of intelligence, reflects on his storied experience as a counterterrorism agent for the U.S. State Department.
Late one night in August 1979, a member of the Irish Republican Army slipped onto an unguarded 9-metre (30-foot) boat called the Shadow V and planted a sophisticated radio-controlled improvised explosive device. The harbour was in a small town in County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland. The vessel belonged to Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, who was paying a visit to his summer home with his family.
Lord Mountbatten — as the queen's cousin, a hero of World War II, the last viceroy and governor-general of India, and mentor to Prince Charles — was given a light security detail from the Irish police force. On land, he was protected. But out on his boat, away from the harbor, he was vulnerable. All the security personnel in the world could not have prevented the transmission of a radio signal to the explosive device that was already on his boat.
Along with Lord Mountbatten, who was 79, the explosion killed three other passengers, including one of the earl's twin grandsons. The attack still stands as one of the most sophisticated uses of improvised explosives against a single, high-profile target.
Ghosts of Past Assassinations
During my time as a special agent with the U.S. State Department, British royals received threats more frequently than almost any other visiting dignitaries. I spent a fair amount of time protecting them, including Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Their visits to the United States garnered a tremendous amount of media attention, and while endless lines of paparazzi followed motorcades through thestreets of New York City, Washington and Los Angeles, behind the scenes, my colleagues and I were on pins and needles. We were constantly on guard against a range of potential attackers, including everyone from IRA members to mentally disturbed persons whose motivations were known only to themselves.
On our assignments, the ghosts of past assassinations remained with us. Every detection and defense method we employed pointed back to a lesson we'd learned from security failures and breaches like the planting of the bomb on the Shadow V that August night in Ireland, three decades ago. Our protective details were robust with agents, police, bomb dogs and countersurveillance teams, all carefully positioned to correct past errors — to spot what we'd missed before, with fatal consequences.
In the protection business, understanding the "how" is far more important than understanding the "why." Journalists and analysts may scramble to explain the political and ideological motivations behind terrorist attacks, but security professionals are concerned only with preventing attacks.
Police officers and special agents routinely study previous terrorist attacks like the murder of Lord Mountbatten and the failed 1984 assassination attempt on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a Brighton hotel. We go to briefings.
We read. We pay attention to the details. We sweep vessels for explosives before allowing dignitaries on board. We check and double-check hotel rooms. We take nothing for granted, posting rooms and vehicles with security personnel, policeÂÂÂÂ officers and agents once the bomb dogs and teams give the all-clear. The "how" becomes a lifesaver: By understanding the methods behind attacks, we identify theÂÂÂÂ vulnerabilities that made them possible and, more important, learn not to make the same mistakes.
In today's world of sophisticated weapons design, explosive ordinance teams and bomb dogs are the norm, while agents and security officers look for hidden bombs in boats, cars, airplanes, hotel rooms, walls and podiums at speaking events.
Electronic countermeasures have been developed to help disrupt radio-controlled bombs and to jam electronic signals. Fixed posts, physical security and alarms deployed to help protect vehicles and vessels, while threat assessments are updated in an effort to stay ahead of the threat.
Harder to Get It Right
Late last month, Prince Charles and his wife Camilla visited the site where his uncle, Lord Mountbatten, was killed. The terrorist attack doubtless haunted not only the prince but also his protection detail, as routes, vehicles, venues and rooms were checked and re-checked.
Savvy as the IRA was at making and deploying bombs, the group is no longer the threat it once was — Islamic extremism is now the higher security priority. But militancy is, of course, no less dangerous now than it was when Lord Mountbatten was killed. Security professionals must anticipate and prevent threats from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda and al Shabaab, whose methods may be less sophisticated but whose attacks have proved equally deadly against soft targets, including the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013. In many cases, grassroots terrorists actually resort to using assault rifles and pistols rather than bombs.
Designing and detonating an improvised explosive device requires the kind of practice and skill exhibited by people like Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; thankfully, the complexity of the process makes it harder for bombers to get it right.
Armed with the lessons of history, those charged with the protection of royals and public figures today are far better prepared to prevent such attacks. But the stakes remain high. In the protection community, 99 percent of the time, nothing happens. Threats prove empty or plots are foiled. But when crisis does strike, the consequences are often fatal.