Thursday, August 11

Surprise tactic broke U.K. crime wave but not before British officialdom's four unforced errors turned London riots into siege of England

Emphasis on attackers and their motives rather than their tactics

At the start of the rioting British officials immediately took up armchair sociology and ruminated about the types of people who were rioting and their motives. Then they tried to mount a response to the riots based on their speculations about motives. This ill-conceived exercise cost the officials precious time as the violence escalated. And, if this report is true, the mistake led to the federal police being ordered to only "contain" the rioters; i.e., in effect watching as mobs destroyed property, thieved and terrorized neighborhoods.

In any event the initial refusal to correctly prioritize -- i.e., before pondering motives first act to stop the violence by responding to it in purely tactical terms -- set up the three major unforced errors that followed. I'll outline the errors but first an overview of the situation as it stood on Wednesday night:

England was mostly quiet on Wednesday night; this after four straight nights of arson, looting and attacks on police that left devastation in parts of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham and several towns and in effect placed the mainland under siege to a crime wave that British officials and the press still insist on terming 'rioting.'

On Wednesday morning, after a meeting with the government's emergency committee, Cobra, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron authorized the police to use water cannon and non-lethal bullets and to take all other measures to quell the rioting.


Yet the uneasy calm has less to do with the large deployments of federal troops in London and other cities than with the actions of thousands of British civilians, who, inspired by the courage of a few hundred shopkeepers, by Monday had mounted patrols and actively defended their neighborhoods with makeshift weapons.(1)

It was these Britons, not the police, who broke the back of the crime wave. The massive deployment of troops (16,000 in London alone) only served to keep the peace in neighborhoods where the civilians had already stopped the criminals. This is an amazing story because there's a technical reason why the civilian forces were able to accomplish what the police couldn't.

The greatest efficiency of the officials during the crisis was that they methodically stripped themselves of every viable counter-tactic they might have mustered against the criminals' tactics. Yet it so happened that without guidance from the military, and probably with little to no knowledge of military tactics, the civilian patrols carried out the one viable counter-tactic left. They did so in a way that I think government and police officials don't understand because they still don't understand the tactics used against them. I discuss the tactics under the second and third 'unforced error' headings in this post.

As to why the official response to the crime wave was largely ineffectual, because of the following interlocked reasons:

Failure to deal with key role that encrypted communications technology was playing in criminals' strike tactics.

Even if the police had been allowed to fully deploy and zealously combat the criminals during the first days of the crisis, they still would have faced the problem that had beset them from the beginning, which is that it was hard to catch up with many of the criminals.

That's because many of the criminals were using encrypted text messaging such as available on BlackBerry cell phones. The technology means the user's location can't be immediately traced by the police. This allowed the criminals to warn each other of the location of police deployments. This in turn allowed them to strike where the police were absent, then move to another location before the police arrived -- all without fear of their communications being traced quickly enough to identify their whereabouts.(2)(3)

From the earliest hours of the crisis the federal police (Scotland Yard aka Metropolitan Police) were aware of the problem. At least one Member of Parliament, David Lammy from Tottenham (which was the site of the earliest rioting), called for a suspension of BlackBerry's encrypted instant-message service, although whether he did this formally I don't know; he made the recommendation on his Twitter page.(2)

Yet for reasons that are still unclear the encrypted messaging service used by BlackBerry, reportedly the favorite messaging service of the criminals, wasn't suspended.(2) In any event, failure to suspend the service during the crucial early hours of the rioting left the authorities with only one viable tactic to quickly halt the violence: call up the military to supplement a full deployment of federal police in order to blanket Tottenham and other hot spots in London. When the tactic wasn't deployed, then it was falling-dominos time in England.

Failure to acknowledge the radically altered nature of the attacks

Use of the encrypted technology gave the criminals a huge tactical advantage over the police because it allowed them to 'spot' for criminals who didn't have the technology, then communicate via unencrypted technology (either through social media sites such as Twitter or cell phone calls), where to avoid police.

This tactic also meant that increasingly large numbers of arsonists -- people who meant to do serious harm -- and professional thieves could join the relatively small number of Britons who launched riots on Saturday night because they were reasonably sure of not being confronted by police.

The burgeoning numbers participating in looting also exposed a major flaw in the government's heavy reliance on closed-circuit television cameras (CCTVs) as a crime deterrent. (The U.K. leads the world in the number of CCTVs mounted in public places.) No matter how many CCTVs, the sheer number of criminals and their mobility meant that the CCTV technology was virtually worthless at tracking and preventing attacks.

In summary, while there were always 'rowdies' interspersed with the crime wave -- e.g., people who just wanted to get drunk and throw bricks through windows or help themselves to the remains at stores that had already been robbed -- once word passed that looters had a method for avoiding the police, this transformed many rowdies into amateur thieves. This turned the rioting into a crime wave that spilled out from London to other cities in England.


From then onward the proven ability of the criminals to strike multiple locations without police interference meant that what had started as unstructured violence had morphed into what is known in military parlance as the "swarm" guerilla warfare tactic.

This tactic, which was on display during the 2008 terrorist siege of Mumbai, allows a small number of guerrillas to flummox even large police and paramilitary deployments by forcing them to split their numbers in the effort to respond to surprise attacks at numerous locations.

Yet because British authorities were still not putting tactics first they simply failed to recognize the changed nature of the violence and thus, remained against calling in military support for the police. This was a disastrous error.


For readers who want to learn more about the swarm tactic see John Arquilla's discussion in a February 2009 op-ed for the New York Times (The Coming Swarm). Below is the graphic for the writing, which symbolizes (on the left) a swarm attack and, on the right, an effective counterattack.

Illustration: Oliver Munday and Ramell Ross

As you might intuit from the graphic, the key problem in dealing with the surprise swarm attack is that security forces can't always be present in sufficient numbers at all locations that have come under swarm attacks. There are military workarounds to this, as Arquilla outlines in his op-ed. But the graphic helps convey the importance of 'citizen readiness' and civilian watchdog groups in supplementing security forces. During the first minutes or hours of a surprise attack, civilians and local police might be the only people who are available to meet an attack until paramilitary/military units arrive.

In short, the swarm attack is best met with counter-swarms -- often comprised of local police and civilians working together or in tandem.

And it just so happened that the civilian patrols that sprang up all over English cities in response to the swarming tactics of the criminals were textbook proof of the viability of countering swarms with swarms.


Why was the counter-tactic so effective in this case? The technical reason is that it canceled out the criminals' one great tactical advantage over the police, which was the ability to strike and move on before the resistance arrived. The advantage was mooted when the criminals weren't chased from place to place but instead met with resistance from civilian patrols in more and more places.

This collapsed the dynamic of the crime wave, given that the crimes were based on opportunity, and that word of gathering civilian resistance was quickly spread by the criminals through the same means they'd used to evade the police -- cell phone technology and social media!

And of course cell phone technology and social media are two-way streets; as law-abiding civilians got in the swing of countering the criminals they too made the technology and social media into tactical weapons -- and even if they couldn't participate directly in the civilian patrols.

In addition, the civilian patrols solved one of the most vexing problems for the authorities, which is that processing huge numbers of arrested persons had wreaked havoc on the country's criminal justice system. See the Guardian's August 10 report, UK riots: More than 1,000 arrests strain legal system to the limit.

Not only the courts but also the police were overwhelmed with processing such large numbers of arrests. This was partly due to reliance on procedures that weren't designed for such emergency situations; for example, every arrest required taking two police officers off the street to give evidence.(4) But what was really needed by Tuesday was quick crowd dispersal -- for the hordes of rowdies and amateur thieves to give up and go home rather than clogging the justice system to the point where it could barely function. The civilian patrols, which were unencumbered with the need to make arrests and do bookings, accomplished just that objective, thus taking pressure off the justice system.

Quick crowd dispersal was also important because the large numbers were making it easy for the cats among the pigeons, the professional thieves, to work under cover of the chaos.

So in ways no one could have predicted the civilian patrols countered every major problem that the authorities couldn't deal with.

This brings me to the last major unforced error:

No plan for engaging civilian help in emergency policing

The violence would have ended sooner if close civilian-police coordination had been established before the criminals struck. Yet as a formal security measure, the counter-swarm tactic is not something to be undertaken lightly -- particularly if large numbers of civilians are put at risk.

Thusly, the crucial importance of planning, training and drill of volunteer civilian responders. This must include the authorities setting clear boundaries and rules for civilian involvement, and working out legal protections for civilians who volunteer to be on call for such duty.

Failure to plan in thorough fashion for formal civilian assistance during a policing emergency is an unforced error that the United Kingdom shares with many countries, I might add. Even here in the United States, which since 9/11 has fashioned itself into one of the hardest targets for terrorists, there is still much to be done in terms of increasing civilian readiness.


Yet even without planning and training, the Britons who formed neighborhood patrols and showed willingness to fight the criminals improvised splendidly. For their pains and courage they were described as "vigilantes" by officials and the British press. And some British police complained that these civilians were interfering with police work and downplayed their contribution by warning against "vigilante mobs" and "vigilante justice."

Given the amount of rumination expended by officials on the psychology of the criminals who were placing England under siege, one would think they'd do a ittle ruminating on the psychology of people who helplessly watch their livelihoods go up in smoke and their neighbhorhoods turned into war zones while hearing the police tell them that their only recourse is to barricade themselves inside their homes and wait for police assistance.(4)

If society does not give its citizens a viable action path for responding to clear threats to their lives and property when police help is obviously slow in coming, if it criminalizes civilians for acting responsibly to protect themselves and their neighbors, many citizens can become enraged and the more aggressive ones can indeed act on their rage through vigilante justice.

The solution is to lay down an action path for civilian assistance to the police during emergency situations, and do so before the path is tested by events.

The path can't be established fast enough. In an era when far more deadly adversaries than the criminals who wreaked havoc in England are combining swarm tactics with sophisticated communications technologies, recognizing that well-prepared civilians can play a key role in successful counter-swarm tactics is vital to a nation's security.

Notes and Source Reports

1) Two News Accounts of the Civilian Response

August 10:
Vigilantes take to London streets
Agence France-Presse (AFP) via Hindustan Times

Defiant Londoners took to the streets in their hundreds to defend their communities against the looting and arson which have consumed the British capital over the last four days. Hundreds of Sikhs, some dressed in traditional outfits, gathered outside the their gurdwara (temple) in Southall, west London, yesterday after earlier rumours circulated it was next on the looters' hit list.

The group organised motorcycle patrols and monitored the train station for potential troublemakers, according to an AFP reporter.

Around 200 locals in Enfield, the north London borough at the heart of previous attacks, strode through the area to "protect their streets", an AFP correspondent explained.

Amateur video footage released today showed a group of around 100 men running down an Enfield street chanting "England, England, England".

The group earlier became involved in an altercation with a youth carrying a hockey stick, but the situation was resolved after a majority of the mob called for calm.

A similar number of football fans congregated in the south-east suburb of Eltham, also rumoured to be a likely hot spot.

"This is a white working class area and we are here to protect our community," one man told the Guardian newspaper.

"We are here to help the police. My mum is terrified after what she saw on the television in the last three days and we decided that it's not going to happen here," he added.

Meanwhile, mainly Turkish shopkeepers in the north London districts of Hackney and Kentish Town sat outside their shops into the early hours, many with makeshift weapons by their side.
August 10:
Vigilantes join 16,000 police on capital's streets
By Jerome Taylor
The Independent

Shop owners across London vowed to protect their own businesses as anger over the police's inability to stop widespread looting pushed them towards setting up their own neighbourhood vigilante groups.

Inspired by reports of Turkish and Bangladeshi groups chasing would-be looters out of their neighbourhoods in east London, many shopkeepers took to the streets to deter looters. Hundreds of Sikhs turned out in the Southall area last night in a collective show of force after rumours circulated that jewellery shops were going to be targeted.

In Enfield, sporadic chases occurred between a large group of people in their thirties and masked youths. Residents said they were out in a "show of strength." No violence was reported in either borough.

The news that shopkeepers were fighting back came as police investigating a large fire which destroyed The House of Reeves furniture store in Croydon arrested a man on suspicion of arson with intent to endanger life. The 21-year-old suspect was detained by officers last night and is being held at a south London police station, police said. And while most of the capital was quiet, it was reported at 1am that a recycling centre in Tottenham was on fire.

Many others said yesterday they too would defend their livelihoods if rioting erupted in the capital again. "We're planning to get together and defend our streets," said one 32-year-old shopkeeper from Hackney, who asked not to be named. "I don't want to take the law into my own hands but if I have to, I will."

Pictures of Monday night's rioting mainly showed police and locals conceding the streets to baying mobs which trashed shops and set fire to cars or buildings with near impunity. Yet there were instances where locals physically resisted the looters.

In Dalston, a corner of north-east London with a large Turkish community, men armed with baseball bats and sticks fought running battles with masked youths. Shop owners in Dalston said they felt compelled to arm themselves because it was clear there weren't enough police to protect the area. Many of the businesses on Kingsland Road, Dalston's main thoroughfare, do not have shutters protecting their windows and are therefore vulnerable to vandals.

"There were no police so we came out to defend ourselves," said a shopkeeper who gave only his first name, Mehmet. "I don't know if it's breaking the law but what can we do?" he asked.

In the more affluent neighbourhood of Stoke Newington further north – an area filled with boutique shops and independent retailers – there was widespread praise for Turkish people who stopped rioters.

In Whitechapel, home to Britain's largest Bangladeshi population, locals described how 70 masked rioters were chased out of the neighbourhood by Bengali youths who had gathered for evening prayers outside East London Mosque.

"There's a real sense of community here, especially during Ramadan when people are supposed to look out for each other," said Abdul Jalil, the manager of the Deshi Fish grocery store opposite the mosque. "The shutters will come down this evening but I'm going to stick around in case the rioters come into the area again."
2) Text Messaging Angle

From a Seattle Times report compiled from Associated Press, Bloomberg News and New York Times reports; the Seattle Times report addresses several aspects of the violence so I'm featuring just those quotes that refer to the text messaging:
British rioters rely on text messaging
August 9, 2011 at 8:40 PM

While a car goes up in flames in Hackney, east London, a man types on his cellphone. Encrypted messages sent via BlackBerrys are being used by mobs to encourage rioting.

LONDON — Some of the text messages read like real-time rallying calls for rioters.

"If you're down for making money, we're about to go hard in east London," one looter messaged before the violence spread.

Others directed troublemakers to areas of untapped riches — stores selling expensive stereo equipment, designer clothes, alcohol or bicycles.

Encrypted messages sent via BlackBerrys were being used by mobs to encourage rioting that has spread from London across central and northern England for a fourth night of violence driven by poor, diverse and brazen crowds of youths.
In Manchester, police said they have made at least 47 arrests, including one man on suspicion of using Facebook's social-networking site to incite disorder.
Many of the masked or hooded youths have been photographed typing cellphone messages while cars and buildings burn.

BlackBerry's messaging system is popular among youths because it's free, compatible with multimedia and private, compared with Facebook and Twitter. Its encrypted messages give troublemakers an added benefit: Police aren't able to immediately trace message traffic the way they can with regular cellphones.

BlackBerry said it was cooperating with police, but shutting down the messaging system could penalize more than just the troublemakers. More than 45 million people use the BlackBerry messaging system worldwide. President Obama is said to use the same secure system to communicate.

BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, based in Waterloo, Ontario, posted a message on its official U.K. Twitter account last night saying, "We feel for those impacted by the riots in London. We have engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can."

On Tuesday, hackers compromised BlackBerry's blog site in response to the company saying it would cooperate with police.

Social media have been used to coordinate demonstrations in the Mideast, to campaign for Saudi women's right to drive and to call for lower prices for cottage cheese in Israel.

In a Twitter post, David Lammy, a member of Parliament from Tottenham and a former intellectual-property minister, called for a suspension of BlackBerry's encrypted instant-message service.[...]
3) Lesson from the 2008 Mumbai siege

The terrorists who struck at Mumbai relied on a primitive variation of the encrypted-messaging technology tactic to stay ahead of the police in Mumbai: The terrorists' handlers, who were in constant contact with them via cell phones, watched live TV coverage of the attacks, which showed where the police were being deployed in Mumbai and in what numbers. The handlers then simply relayed this real-time information to the terrorists!

When the Mumbai police realized what was happening they ordered a blackout of all live news coverage of the siege. Once the handlers were greatly hampered in their ability to track the locations of police deployments, this shifted the battle in favor of the police, who'd honed in on some of the phone conversations between the terrorists and their handlers.

4) Police response prior to Wednesday

I've highlighted a passage from the following Wall Street Journal report that starkly illustrates just how poorly prepared the police were for dealing with large numbers of arrests during an emergency situation. This is another report that addresses several aspects of the violence so I'm only featuring quotes that relate to the general police response:
Beleaguered U.K. Police Step Up Response
By Cassell Bryan-Low and Paul Sonne
August 10, 2011

(LONDON) Police in the U.K. capital nearly tripled the number of officers on the streets to try to contain a fourth night of violence, and fended off criticism about their failure to stop the spread of looting and rioting.
London's Metropolitan Police, known as Scotland Yard, said it was deploying 16,000 officers Tuesday night, up from 6,000 on Monday, marking the largest deployment the force has ever made for an event. Scotland Yard brought in officers and equipment from police departments outside the capital and has put on hold other probes apart from the most serious ones.

Amid Britain's worst outbreak of social unrest in years, London police have arrested more than 560 people and charged 105 of those with burglary or other offenses.

[Pundita note: This tally didn't include arrests in other cities up to the time the report was published.]

More than 100 officers have sustained injuries, including fractured bones and serious head injuries, after being attacked with bricks, bottles and in some cases, hit by motor vehicles.

Scotland Yard also has about 500 detectives investigating those suspected of looting and other crimes who weren't arrested at the scene of the violence. They are screening close-circuit television footage that monitors transportation systems and other public spaces.
The unrest comes at a critical time for British police, who are dealing with heightened terror alerts and plans for next year's Olympic Games while also facing budget cuts.

It also comes as Scotland Yard is under transitional leadership following the resignation last month of its top cop and another senior official over the force's handling of the News Corp. phone-hacking scandal. (News Corp. owns The Wall Street Journal.)
Stephen Kavanagh, deputy assistant commissioner at the Metropolitan Police, added that police resources had been sapped by having to protect fire and ambulance crews, which also came under attack as they responded to incidents around the capital. He also noted that each arrest requires taking two police officers off the street to give evidence and that Scotland Yard had fielded more than 40,000 calls on Monday night alone.

The police say they have already used new tactics, such as driving armor-plated vehicles towards crowds to disperse them. They are also prepared to use measures such as rubber bullets, if necessary, but are mindful of the repercussions that could have damaging police relations with communities.

Some politicians, business owners and residents in affected neighborhoods have expressed frustration at what they called an inadequate level of police response, calling for a greater police presence and tougher tactics. Some were taken aback by images that showed rampant looting under way with no police in sight to contest it and accounts by some residents and merchants of police standing by while looting took place.

"Questions need to be asked," said Dai Davies, a former senior Scotland Yard officer who advises governments on policing.
Mr Kavanagh defended the force, saying the scale and intensity of the violence, and the speed at which it moved, had never been seen in the U.K.

"I don't believe the Met failed," he said. "It was stretched in a way it never has been before."

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