A series of firearm incidents at a location on the A68 in Northumbria eventually prompted a police investigation which is still ongoing. It serves as an example of our failure to notice a real threat to our safety. Thousands of passing road users remained blissfully unaware. In September 2017 the M1 near Milton Keynes was closed for 9 hours with stationary traffic caught between junctions 14 and 15. Somebody had noticed a “suspicious” black plastic bag under a bridge. An investigation by the EOD, (Explosive Ordnance Disposal), determined that the bag contained nothing dangerous.
We all have the potential to recognise threat but we need to be educated about how to see and recognise the more subtle elements of it. UK society was educated about suspicious packages in the 1970’s as a result of the terrorist threat from Northern Ireland. It stuck. However, our ability to notice less obvious threatening features should be of concern.
Mourne Mountains, County Down, Northern Ireland. Image taken – January 2017.
The Deputy Commissioner and head of counter-terrorism in the UK, Neil Basu has endorsed a calling to the UK population that we can all play a part in the security of the nation and be “Counter Terror Citizens”. The concept is nothing new of course, the police and security services have always depended on a proportion of intelligence and information coming via the general public concerning the solving of crime of every nature. This fresh shout joins up with the current Prevent campaign, one of the four Contest strands which forms part of the revised Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. Since 2005 and in the wake of 9/11 and the London terror attacks £80 million has been spent on one thousand schemes over the following 6 years. Government institutions, schools, universities and hospitals introduced training to staff by way of DVD’s and online learning to assist them in recognising and detecting signs of radicalisation. Prevent would appear to be an obvious and sensible support process and many argue it is a success, but it has also come under fierce criticism. The problems centred around inaccurate reporting and the propensity to over referral which overloads the system and wastes the valuable time of intelligence analysts.
“The great majority of British people have as much idea about how to identify a potential terrorist as their ancestors 400 years ago did about detecting witches”. Patrick Cockburn.
In December 2015 a 10-year-old Muslim boy attracted a police investigation in Accrington, Lancashire. Expressing himself in a simple school essay he described where he lived. Unfortunately, he misspelt terraced, he never meant to refer to his home as a terrorist house. His teachers made what was in their view, a valid referral and an investigation took place. The young boy was traumatised by the manner in which he was questioned, and his family complained. The investigation concluded that there was no case to answer. This is by no means the only example.
Important security and war effort campaigns were expounded to British citizens during the Second World War. People were encouraged to be another layer of eyes and ears as well as doing their bit. “Careless talk costs lives”, “Dig for victory” were well known slogans, What’s changed; nothing in the concept except we are not at total war and however the press present it we are thankfully a long way from the unspeakable horrors that the population suffered between 1939 -1945. We do however still live in a society which is threatened. Our peaceful day to day existence can be suddenly challenged and the shock of a random and deadly act is instantly compounded in front of a backdrop of sterile safety and sanitised normality.
We are all bombarded via the traditional media and social media outlets with information and expert opinions on every conceivable subject. Managing our own trains of thought can become a complex task when we are subjected to claim and counter claim, conspiracy, conjecture, “expert” opinion and idle banter. Official bodies rapidly receiving and processing information from the concerned public who are perhaps non-objective, often fanciful, weighed down with opinion and in some cases vengeful and downright racist must be a difficult task. Sifters have to be aware of time wasters, attention seekers and bigots as well as being alert to the occasional true nugget of information.
We are under threat from religious insurgents, belligerent radicals, white supremacists and social terrorists. We have witnessed and suffered insurgent knife, vehicle, bomb and chemical attacks here in the UK. France, Denmark, Egypt, Tunisia, Germany, Turkey, Belgium, the USA and most recently in New Zealand have also been subjected to large scale gun attacks perpetrated by lone-wolf active shooters and Islamic terrorists. They have suffered and seen the cruel prolonged horror of gun slaying. The UK security services are and have been rehearsing their responses to any style of potential attack; bomb, vehicle, knife, chemical and firearms and to date they have practised those skills. Alongside that we trust that the Intelligence services along with the entire nations police forces are eyes down; border control, coastguard and airport security are scanning. We the public are reminded to remain vigilant. In spite of that we are assured by our security chiefs that of all the threats a large scale firearms attack is less likely to occur here in the UK because of our strict gun laws, the availability of firearms and our unique island status.
Broadcasts filled our TV’s with horrific images of terrorist gunman during the Paris attacks in 2015; clear footage of terrorists on city streets wielding AK47 assault rifles. These weapons were smuggled across vast European borders, originating from the Middle East and Central Europe. UK anti-terror specialists are still on full alert, are there blindspots, could we be overlooking anything.
In August 2015 Kent Police intercepted a motor launch from in France carrying 22 smuggled Czech 7.62mm SA58’S assault rifles and 9 x 9mm Mac machine pistols. That’s acting on good intelligence, the perpetrators were caught and imprisoned but what have we missed, what’s already here. In the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing and the concern that the perpetrator, Salman Albedi his dissident associates and the construction of his explosive device remained “under the radar” would it be be wrong to blindly criticise the police and security services for failing to see this plot developing, MI5 for instance is apparently investigating 500 reports at any one time. Apparently the police had been alerted to Albedi more than once and he had been quite open about his sympathies. One can imagine the pressure they are under but how many supposed intelligence leads are however wasting their valuable time; how many blind alleys do they jog down. The journalist Patrick Cockburn, an authority on the Middle East maintains that would be terrorists are not merely groomed on UK streets, they have strong associations with other dissidents. They are not radicalised schoolboys who purge the internet, read illicit material then make and deliver a bomb. Their connections run much deeper. He wrote,
“If Isis or al Qaeda were asked to devise a programme least likely to hamper their attacks and most liable to send the police off on wild goose hunts, they would find it difficult to devise anything more helpful to themselves than Prevent and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. The great majority of British people have as much idea about how to identify a potential terrorist as their ancestors 400 years ago did about detecting witches”.
In March 2016 on the remote and busy section of the A68 just south of Riding Mill in Northumbria, about as far away from where we might imagine a terrorist outrage would unfold or a brooding lone-wolf gunman would lurk somebody positioned himself in the mouth of a minor road junction to Healey opposite a green steel/alloy direction sign to Darlington and Corbridge. He was armed with a 7.62mm high velocity rifle. He proceeded to open fire at the structure, firing the weapon across the road at head height, 13 bullets cleanly penetrated the 3mm plates. Those rounds had the energy to continue for up to 2 miles travelling at close to 3000 fps. The shot impacts were random and extended across the entire structure. Directly behind the structure there is a gorse bush and just 600 metres directly behind that and well within the weapons killing zone is a rural Industrial Estate. The gunman either retrieved all the spent cartridge cases or they were simply ejected inside the confines of the vehicle he used to get there because there was no other sign of his presence. It is not known how many shots in total were actually fired.
The Northumbria Police, no less security briefed than any UK force were totally unaware of this shooting, no officers had noticed the site despite police vehicles regularly passing it and nobody had reported seeing or hearing anything suspicious. When they were informed their first reaction was extraordinary, they suggested that this damage was not caused by firearms but probably the result of material falling off passing lorries or stones thrown up by their tyres. After further contact their second response was to admit that the officer sent to inspect it couldn’t find the location. Having eventually found the site a police spokesman speaking to a local newspaper oddly attempted to divert attention by questioning the ability of someone being able to see such evidence whilst driving past. Their final response on receipt of a report from the individual that found and inspected it was that they would indeed formally investigate.
If our country’s security amounts to such a violent perpetration being overlooked then doubted, questioned and then just ignored it surely questions our ability to recognise possible links to serious threats of any nature. It perhaps challenges the usefulness and investment direction of Contest if police officers can’t be given even the most basic training in recognising where firearms have been illegally used in public places. This type of illegal firearm use is nothing new and police forces up and down the country have been alerted to it on numerous occasion. The A68 incident was particularly violent. If we have a mass shooting in the UK, we will have to ask; did we do our absolute best to consider and detect every potential for it. The A68 site may well have nothing to do with terrorism but that’s irrelevant. It was an extremely deliberate act perpetrated at a time of great sensitivity. As a nation we have limited “gun savvy” and that unfortunately includes our largely unarmed, and over stretched police forces. Firearms are definitely our Achilles heel, perhaps a penalty for a relativily gun free society. As well as Northumbria Police copies of the report and images of the A68 shooting was sent to MI5, the NCA, (National Crime Association), Border Force, NABIS, (National Ballistic Intelligence Service), the Serious Crime Unit and Police Commissioner Mark Rowley, who at the time was head of counter terrorism. Only Northumbria Police, NABIS and Border Force acknowledged receipt.
That wasn’t the end of it. In June 2017 another member of the public discovered that a further 6 rounds had penetrated the structure; same calibre, no spent cartridges left at the scene. The local police were unaware. It then transpired that Northumbria Police had failed to investigate the initial attack. After the second shooting they tasked a local PC, (who was not a firearms officer), to investigate. His conclusion after inspecting the site and interviewing the witnesses who found the evidence was that the perpetrator was most likely to be a poacher with an illegally acquired rifle. Perhaps he’s right. The very people who should have noticed, our nations security officials, were the last to know. This shooter is mobile, well armed, confident and completely fearless.
On August 1st 2018 I personally inspected the site once again en-route to Scotland on business. A further 4 rounds of the same calibre had penetrated, all of which had been fired through the Corbridge sign structure, now a total of 23 rounds all fired from the same direction. A fresh investigation was initiated by Northumbria Police this time led by a Detective Sergeant.
Between that discovery and 14 September when the investigating officer started house to house enquiries, he visited the site again and discovered a further 2 rounds had penetrated. He made a specific visit to the rural industrial site directly behind the structures in the line of fire. He spoke to the owner who reported no known damage. He and staff on site were unaware of any odd occurrences and had not been aware of gunfire.
We know what and where, we can approximate when, we can surmise why but we don’t have a clue WHO.