Snipers on buildings. Drone no-fly zones. Temporary CCTV. The security plan is even more complex than it was for the London 2012 Olympics.
INSIDE A SPECIAL Operations Room in central London’s Lambeth borough are representatives from the Metropolitan Police, emergency services, intelligence agencies such as GCHQ and MI5, and local authorities. They’ve gathered there for the queen. “It's an enormous room,” says Nick Aldworth, the UK’s former counterterrorism national coordinator, who has spent 36 years in policing and the military. Teams will work in various “pods” and feed information to a senior police officer who will be in charge and make final decisions, Aldworth adds. Every hour there will be two main meetings, where the latest updates are shared. “The overall commander will have tactical advisers sitting with them,” the former counterterrorism director says. The SOR is the main hive of a sprawling security and surveillance operation meant to protect mourners of Queen Elizabeth II, who died on September 8 at the age of 96, after more than 70 years on the throne. The Met, the country’s biggest police force, says the policing operation is “enormous,” “extraordinary,” and the largest one it has ever conducted. From the moment the queen's coffin left Balmoral, in Scotland, people have followed its journey and paid their respects to the monarch. Five million people tracked the queen’s final flight from Scotland to London. Thousands filled roads and sidewalks, dozens deep in places, to glance at the queen’s coffin as it passed. And for days, tens of thousands of people have joined a miles-long queue in London, waiting in line for more than 24 hours, to see the queen lying in state in Westminster Hall. Millions have watched along online. The mourning culminates on Monday, September 19, as hundreds of world leaders join the royal family for the queen’s state funeral. More than a million people are expected to descend on London for all the funeral events. More than 10,000 police officers are estimated to be involved in the events, with hundreds drafted from across the country to London and the town of Windsor. Military staff will also be on standby. “Probably every element of policing in London will be involved,” says Aldworth. During the funeral, which runs for most of the day Monday, the queen’s coffin will be moved the short distance from Westminster Hall to Westminster Abbey, where the state funeral will take place, attended by 2,000 guests. This will be followed by a procession, where members of the royal family will walk behind the coffin before it is driven about 20 miles to the town of Windsor. A further procession and ceremony will take place there before the queen is laid to rest. The Met’s SOR has a wall of TVs, broadcasting video footage. “It is a little bit like you might see in the movies,” Aldworth says. Videofeeds within the room include CCTV of Buckingham Palace and the surrounding areas. (There are around 1 million CCTV cameras in London, making it one of the most surveilled cities in the world. Extra mobile CCTV cameras have been put in place for the queen’s funeral.) If the SOR can’t operate for any reason, such as a power outage, there is a backup center around 10 miles away, Aldworth says.
Even ahead of the funeral, the security operation around the queen’s death has been huge. Mourners who queued across London for days—with the length of the queue being tracked via a YouTube livestream—have faced airport-style security checks before being allowed in the same room as the queen’s coffin, and extra policing patrols have been put in place around the capital. Roads around central London are closed to unauthorized vehicles. As the queen’s coffin has been moved around London, including during processions, the royal family has been incredibly visible. They have walked in front of crowds, meeting members of the public, and shaking their hands. They haven’t hidden behind bulletproof glass. Instead, police officers have lined these procession routes, often spaced about 5 meters apart. At the same time, officers trained in crowd management have scanned crowds for security threats and suspicious behavior. Undercover police are mixed in the crowds. Sniffer dogs trained to detect explosives and firearms are also working around crowds. Advanced security checks have taken place around Westminster Abbey, where the largest part of the funeral ceremony will take place. All nearby manhole covers are being lifted and checked for explosives, the BBC reported. Every lamp post is being opened and searched. Police spotters and snipers will be stationed on top of buildings around central London, while the Met has three helicopters at its disposal. Drones have been banned from flying over a large part of central London and Windsor, as part of a clampdown on air traffic in the areas. Experts say the security operation is comparable to the London 2012 Olympics, but there are some big differences. The Olympics were more predictable: Officials knew when and where events were taking place, plus how many people could fit into stadiums and venues. Security checks could take place before people entered a venue. This time, an unknown number of people will attend the queen’s funeral events, and there aren’t any security checks for people lining the streets. Peter Williams, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University’s Centre for Advanced Policing Studies and a former police officer, says under “mutual aid” agreements, police officers from around the UK have been drafted into London to support the Met. “It will be 12-hour shifts—a day and a night shift,” Williams says. “The management of that is actually really complex.” The right amount of police officers, with the correct skills, need to be in the right places at the right time. Ahead of the funeral, police arrested several protesters who criticized the monarchy, and they demanded the details of a lawyer who held up a blank piece of paper. The moves have been severely criticized by civil liberties groups, with police officials eventually backtracking and saying they would only get involved in protests if it was “absolutely necessary.” The largest looming threat around the funeral is a potential terrorist attack. “The crowds themselves will be a target for terrorists,” former Met police chief superintendent Parm Sandhu has said. “The funeral itself will be a target for terrorists.” The terror threat across the UK and Europe has changed significantly in the past decade, shifting from organized large-scale terror attacks, such as those coordinated by the Islamic State, to the threat of “lone actors” who may attack people with knives or vehicles. Ahead of the queen’s funeral arriving in Windsor, police installed extra metal and concrete security barriers, part of a tactic known as hostile vehicle mitigation, to stop people deliberately driving vehicles into crowds of mourners.
At the moment, the UK government’s official terror threat level is classed as “substantial,” meaning an attack is “likely”—the middle of five different threat levels. But this threat level, which was lowered in February, applies to the entire country. “What they will also do for an event of this magnitude is an event-specific threat level,” Aldworth says. This will cover specific threats to the events around the queen's funeral, and intelligence agencies will be monitoring people they have identified as potential risks. The funeral also has armed police in high demand. “There’s a massive requirement for firearms, more than for routine officers, because of the amount of dignitaries,” Ken Marsh, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation said last week. Police officers authorized to carry firearms have been called in from around the UK. Overall, the UK has 6,192 armed police officers, according to the most recent statistics—that’s 4.3 percent of the country’s total 142,526 police. The world leaders attending the event provide another security headache. A full list of those in attendance has not been published at the time of writing, but it is expected that some of the world’s most powerful leaders will be traveling to London. US president Joe Biden is due to attend, alongside Emperor Naruhito of Japan, France’s president Emmanuel Macron, plus royalty and political leaders from around the world. (Officials from Russia, Belarus, North Korea and a handful of other nations have not been invited. China’s president, Xi Jinping, has been invited, although Chinese officials have reportedly been blocked from seeing the queen’s coffin lying in state.) The UK government has asked foreign leaders and royals to travel to the events using commercial aircraft, rather than their own private planes. When they are in London, they’ve also been asked to travel to the funeral on government-provided buses, which will leave from an unknown location in west London. The move is creating a diplomatic backlash. Five countries have pushed back against the official plans, according to Politico. One exception to the rule is Biden. UK officials have said he can travel to the funeral in the Beast, the highly armored Cadillac designed to keep the president safe.