The scale is epic: potentially millions of people throng the streets, more than 100 foreign dignitaries and their employees flock from all over the world, hundreds of local and international government agencies coordinating logistics, and large swaths of roads and transportation networks are closed or overcrowded.
For London’s Metropolitan Police – the storied force also known as Scotland Yard – Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral on Monday promises to be a security challenge unlike what she faced.
“This is probably the largest official or ceremonial event the UK has ever held,” said former Chief Constable Sobet. Parm Sandhu. “Even when the Queen Mother died or [Princess] Diana, it wasn’t that big.”
Tens of thousands of people have already flocked to the British capital for public festivities leading up to the funeral, with railway officials warning of an “unprecedented travel demand”. Crowds flooded the mall to watch the procession of the Queen’s casket from Buckingham Palace to the Houses of Parliament, and the queue of people wanting to pay their respects to the casket while it was in state stretched for five miles – a 14-hour wait. On Friday, officials temporarily rejected new arrivals to the queue because it had increased for too long.
Just to manage the queue, authorities mobilized 779 professional supervisors from private security companies, 100 volunteer civil service guards, 30 clerics, 10 members of the Red Cross and hundreds of other volunteers.
However, this is dwarfed by the logistical and security headaches of the funeral itself, with crowd estimates ranging from 750,000 to 3 million people.
Nick Aldworth, a private security adviser who previously served as the UK’s national coordinator for counter-terrorism, said:
Compounding the process will be the heads of state and government – including President Biden – who will begin descending on London early Friday, all with their own mandates and security requirements.
To date, the Metropolitan Police has brought in 10,000 police from across the country and deployed 1,500 soldiers. Three helicopters join from the Met’s air support unit, and additional surveillance cameras are being installed in one of the world’s most closely watched cities.
Armed observers have taken up positions on the rooftops of the area around Westminster Abbey, where the funeral will take place, with sniffer dogs roaming hallways and checking manhole crews and lampposts for bombs. More security personnel will join on Monday, and the Special Air Service, an Army commando unit, will be put on standby.
There is still a potential danger — from pickpockets or worse, said Raffaello Pantucci, an expert on countering terrorism and extremism at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. The main fear of the authorities when it comes to terrorism is the so-called lone wolf attacks, those carried out by people acting alone without coordination with armed groups.
“This is the dominant part of the threat that they cannot control,” Pantucci said. “It’s volatile and hard to predict.”
Police have a number of advantages built around Westminster Abbey, which is a stone’s throw from the Houses of Parliament.
This is a heavily fortified area of London. “You have permanent barricades, thousands of policemen and comprehensive surveillance systems,” said Aldworth, who once headed security in Parliament.
Beyond that is what Aldworth called the “last mile,” where people can be vulnerable to attack as they leave transportation hubs and walk into the festivities area.
“We know that terrorists like to attack crowds, and you can’t stop a lone actor, or someone with a knife or their possessions. But there are large numbers of police officers — everywhere — who can respond quickly and effectively to any malicious activity,” Aldworth said.
Not everyone is happy with these additional conditional measures.
Although anti-monarchy and Republican activists mostly stayed out of sight during the period of mourning for the Queen, some protests ended with police arrests of protesters. Among them is Paul Paulsland, a lawyer who was threatened with arrest when he held up a blank banner near Parliament Square. Public outrage at the authorities’ response prompted police to issue directives to officers to ensure the incident did not happen again.
“A period of quiet mourning for the Queen is a good thing, but to use that period to cement Charles’ accession as king and crack down on any opposition to accession as disrespectful,” Paulsland said in an interview with British television.
King Charles III is scheduled to host a Sunday evening reception for visiting heads of state. According to a government document leaked to Politico, visiting leaders cannot take their cars to the funeral the next morning, and instead will be transported en masse by bus to Westminster Abbey. Exceptions will be made for some high-risk personalities, including Biden, who will be traveling in his own armored limousine. The British government faced a backlash over what some diplomats call an unfair two-tier system.
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Another problem is how to mitigate the risks to members of the royal family as they “walk around” to greet the common people. The main threat comes from people who are obsessed with the royal family and who may manifest this obsession in violent ways.
“Not all well-educated people pose any kind of risk; we all focus to a certain degree in our lives on friends, hobbies, and family. We all focus to a certain degree in our lives on friends, hobbies and family,” said Andrew Wolfe Murray, a former investigator at the Center for Persistent Threat Assessment, a specialized police unit jointly set up by the Home Office, the Department of Health and Scotland Yard, “But you look at those who are very persistent.” “A number of these people can have serious mental illness.”
Much of the work to assess these threats is happening early on, Murray said, because those who focus on a particular individual usually find it important that the subject of their obsession knows their presence.
“They tend to arrive early and report the fact that they are there,” he said.
Sandow, the former chief superintendent, said that before any tour members of the royal family are briefed on a list of about 10 to 20 fixed members. Close protection teams monitor those around them.
“They are not watching the royal family but watching the crowds, and they will have been trained in body language and body awareness,” she said. “So they are looking for someone who is not smiling or respectful, someone who is showing signs of being emotional.”
Despite the array of challenges, security officials point to the fact that the Queen’s funeral – dubbed Operation London Bridge – took decades to plan.
My first contact with planning this operation was 20 years ago. “They are taken every year, they are refined, they are validated,” Aldworth said, adding that last year’s funeral for the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, provided additional lessons. “I am relieved that the plan itself is really effective. It will come down to how it is delivered on the day.”