Chris Marshall: Is Police Scotland properly prepared for a Brussels-style attack?

Nearly a decade on from the terror attack at Glasgow Airport, much has changed internationally to make the world an even more dangerous place than it once was.

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty

Civil war in Syria combined with the rise of the group calling itself Islamic State (IS) and recruiting young Britons to its cause poses huge challenges for our police and security agencies.

Despite the increasingly sophisticated nature of intelligence gathering, last week’s attacks in Brussels show that the extremists will continue to get through when willing to attack so-called “soft targets” such as airports and metro stations.

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Speaking at the weekend, Police Scotland’s head of counter-terrorism, Assistant Chief Constable Ruaraidh Nicolson, warned an attack on Scottish soil was likely to come from those already in the country and not a foreign terror cell.

And although recent attacks in France and Belgium have been carried out by well-organised groups with links to IS, Mr Nicolson said his force was also continuing to prepare for the threat of so-called “lone wolf” attacks carried out by single perpetrator.

But while he admitted keeping tabs on individuals who give cause for concern, he said any attack was unlikely to be as “sophisticated” as that seen in Paris in November due to the relative difficulty of obtaining firearms in Scotland.

The final point is a curious one as it seems to be at odds with what Police Scotland has previously prepared for.

Speaking in the days following the Paris attack last year, Assistant Chief Constable Bernie Higgins, head of operational support, said the assault on the French capital had changed thinking on the nature of what police could expect.

The multi-pronged attack on the Stade de France, the Bataclan and on the city’s restaurants and bars showed police had to be ready for terrorists to hit several locations at the same time, not just the two previously planned for, he said.

The suggestion police are preparing for an armed assault in Scotland appeared to be given further credence in January when a huge training exercise took place at Braehead shopping centre, complete with armed attackers and hostages.

All that makes Mr Nicolson’s comments at the weekend all the more difficult to understand.

In describing the threat of an “unsophisticated” attack, what the senior officer was likely referring to was one carried out by an attacker carrying a knife rather than a gun.

With just 275 armed officers across the country – as well as a number of unarmed officers trained to carry firearms – Police Scotland will be hoping that if and when an attack does come, it is not by those carrying automatic weapons.

Following the Paris attacks, the Metropolitan Police increased its armed officers by 600, bringing its total armed response in London to 2,800.

While Police Scotland has repeatedly denied it needs more officers routinely carrying firearms, there are suggestions that senior officers are privately worried about the level of cover available.

The Scottish Police Federation, which represents the rank and file, last week reiterated calls for more officers to carry their weapons in public, saying Scotland was “woefully under-equipped, under-resourced and under-prepared” for a Paris-style attack.

Only Police Scotland knows its true preparedness for the sort of terrorist spectacular we’ve seen on the streets of Paris and Brussels in recent months.

For now, all the public can do is put their faith in the force to get it right.