Lessons From the 2005 London Terrorist Bombings

By Hongxi Sha


On December 21, 1988, terrorists bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. 270 people were killed in that terrorist attack, including the flight crew and 11 people on the ground ("Lockerbie plane bombing," ).

On July 7, 2005, London woke up in a happy mood because it won the competition to host the 2012 Olympic Games on July 6.

The morning rush of London on July 7 was as usual. The Northern Line of the subway was closed because of technical problems.

At 8:50am, three explosions occurred. The first one was in a Circle Line Tunnel between the Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations. The second one was on the Circle Line outside Edgware Road. The third explosion was in a Piccadilly Line tunnel between King’s Cross and the Russell Square. At 9.47am, the fourth explosion occurred on a number 30 bus in Tavistock Square.

In total, 56 people, including the terrorists, died in the explosions. More than 700 were injured.

The 2005 London bombings are the deadliest in London since WWII, and it rises the question of how does the UK deal with major disasters, especially terrorist attacks. This paper will discuss the current vulnerability, mitigation, preparedness, response, recovery, the British Organization of Emergency Management, British foreign policy, disaster policy, and the special challenges in the United Kingdom.


The subway system in London is the earliest and one of the most developed subway systems in the world. During WWII, while the Nazis were bombing London, London citizens hid underground and continued their daily lives.

Daniel B. Prieto, a former research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative, points out that public transportation systems, such as subway and bus systems are vulnerable to attack. It is because of the large number of users and what they can carry. The subway and bus systems are vulnerable also because of the inherent openness and geographic dispersion. However, different public transportation systems are not equally at risk. For example, compared with the others, the major urban transport systems that have higher passenger loads are more dangerous (Prieto, 2005).

A study from the Congressional Research Service mentions that, in the entire world, one-third of terrorist attacks occur in transportation systems. ("transportation safety," ).

Prieto also mentions that, from 1968 through 2004, more than 22,000 terrorist incidents target transportation. Thus, transportation systems have the highest rates of being attacked than any other systems.

He says, “On average, attacks against such systems created more than two-and-a-half times the casualties per incident as attacks on aviation targets. In terms of fatalities, attacks on surface transportation are among the deadliest, ranking behind attacks on aviation and nearly equaling fatality rates of attacks on religious and tourist targets” (Prieto, 2005). The London bombings are an important example that reminds people of the vulnerability of transportation systems.

Structural Mitigation

Mitigation is defined as any sustained effort undertaken to reduce a hazard risk through the reduction of the likelihood and/or the consequence component of that hazard’s risk (Coppola, 2012, p. 209).

Structural mitigation includes resistant construction, building codes and regulatory measures, relocation, construction of community shelters, physical modification, and construction of barrier, deflection, or retention systems. (p.213).

For structural mitigation, generally speaking, the London subway system is too old to respond adequately to a bombing crisis.

 The British Foreign Policy and Racial Issue as Nonstructural Mitigation

In the 2005 London bombings, there were four bombers. Three of them, including Mohammed Sidique Khan, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, were born in Britain as second-generation British citizens. They were raised and educated in Britain, so they are not foreigners.

Another bomber, Germaine Lindsay, was born in Jamaica. He moved to Britain when he was only five months old. He went to school and grew up in West Yorkshire like the other three bombers, and Khan and Tanweer both have Yorkshire accents.

However, BBC claims that, between November 2004 and February 2005, Khan and Tanweer made a two and a half month trip to Pakistan, and they were influenced to commit the bombings. 400,000 residents traveled from the UK to Pakistan in 2004. Furthermore, according to the official report, there is no evidence that Al-Qaeda or any other ‘foreign’ group supported the London bombings (Bulley, 2008).

“The terrorism we are fighting in Britain wasn't born in Britain, though on July 7, last year it was British-born terrorists that committed murder. The roots are in schools and training camps and indoctrination thousands of miles away, as well as in the towns and cities of modern Britain. The migration we experience is from Eastern Europe, and the poverty-stricken states of Africa, and the solutions lie there at its source, and not in the nation bearing its consequences. What this means is that we have to act, not react; we have to do so on the basis of prediction not certainty; and such action will often, usually indeed, be outside of our own territory” (Blair, 2006).

Bulley believes that the UK government must reconsider the British foreign policy because that is a vital mitigation which could help to protect UK from terrorist attacks (Bulley, 2008).

Lessons from 2005 London Bombings

During the 2012 London Olympic Games, the London transportation system needs to carry almost 240,000 passengers every day. London needs better polices to identify potential bombers. To be better prepared, emergency responders need to learn many lessons form the 2005 London Bombings. They also need to learn from other cases around the world (Oppenheimer, 2009).

Emergency professionals have pointed out that London should prepare more equipment and medical resources. The incident-control rooms need to be reconfigured for any potential terrorist attacks.

The outdated communications system also must be reconfigured. In 2005, landline and mobile telephone communications were almost impossible during the first two hours after the explosions. Only the police Casualty Bureau phone line received around 45,000 calls. On another hand, the police did not have much information available for the people who called in. The Commissioner for Fire and Emergency Planning, Sir Ken Knight, said that lack of an advance communication system was wrong (Kapucu, 2010).

Communication operators needed to manage a large number of calls. The situation of the people who unsuccessfully attempt to call in during incidents should be considered. New digital radio systems will be used during the London Olympic Games. However, only the Police Gold commanders have the right to use cell phone networks in special situations, and only in a limited area for a very short time.

One vital improvement, which was made after 2005 London Bombings, is a new digital radio system. It is designed to connect all staff that work in subway stations (Oppenheimer, 2009).

In the future, emergency management in the UK will face the threat of many types of disasters and attacks. The central government of the UK needs to be prepared to react effectively. They need to deal with both new and old challenges during the 2012 London Olympic Games because  of the large number of people coming, and terrorists are likely to be among them.

The London public transportation systems, such as subway and bus systems, are vulnerable to attack. Every level of the UK government needs to be aware of the inherent openness and geographic dispersion of the subway and bus systems. The major urban transport systems are the most dangerous areas because the stations that have higher passenger loads are more dangerous (Prieto, 2005).

During the 2005 London Bombings, due to the ACCOLC, (Access Overload Control), a procedure in the United Kingdom for restricting mobile telephone usage in certain emergencies, rescue efforts were hampered (McCue, 2006).   In 2009, ACCOLC was replaced by MTPAS (Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme). However, crisis communication still needs to be re-considered and well prepared for.

On the other hand, the UK government must reconsider the British foreign policy because that is the reason why most terrorist attacks occurred in the past (Bulley, 2008). Otherwise, the UK government has to not only face terrorist attacks from foreign countries, but also from within Britain.

Emergency management in UK has been working on mitigation. Education and awareness of citizens about the vulnerability is also very important (Burningham, Fielding, & Thrush 2008). Emergency management in the UK should not only teach UK citizens about vulnerability to terrorism, but also the travelers from the other countries.

Mitigation for children is vital too. Requiring mitigation courses as a part of required courses in the different levels of education should be encouraged. Schools in the UK should teach young people how to prepare, plan, and stay informed before and during emergencies. They also have to teach the children how to find opportunities to help with community preparedness because children are not only passive victims of the disasters. They can save many people’s lives if they are better informed about what to do in times of disaster. (Coppola, 2012).


In a videotape that was broadcast by Al Jazeera, the bombers claimed that their attacks were for their “mothers, children, brothers and sisters in Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya.” A bomber said that the non-Muslims in Britain who voted for the UK government deserve it ("Video of London," 2006; "London bomber: Text," 2005).

Like 9/11 and other terrorist attacks that occurred or were attempted in UK and US, the 2005 London bombings were motivated by revenge directed against the British and American political and military activity in the Middle East.

The British media tends to characterize Muslims as outsiders and potential terrorists.  This contributes to the social bias against Muslims in Britain that tends to alienate them from British society. It is not hard to understand how some people who were born, raised, and lived in UK for many years  still consider themselves as outsiders and hate the country that they live in.

Therefore, the UK government must reconsider their foreign policy, and the whole British society should be aware of racism as well in the growing diversity of their country. Otherwise, further terrorist attacks may continue to occur.


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