Belfast Telegraph

Belfast Christmas Market open to lone wolf terrorist attack, says report

By Suzanne Breen

Belfast City Hall is extremely vulnerable to a car bomb or a 'lone wolf' attack involving knives, a counter-terrorism assessment has found.

An internal council document obtained by the Belfast Telegraph reveals that the Christmas Market currently in the grounds of City Hall is seen as a "specific vulnerability" by the National Counter-Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO).

The document says the council has taken some action to improve security at the market, which runs until December 23.

Large planters have been deployed on the pavement outside City Hall "to provide some protection in the case of a vehicle-born attack".

However, last night there was no security on any of the gates leading into the market when this newspaper visited it.

The side gate at Donegall Square East was wide open and a large car could easily have been driven up the pavement and through it into the market.

There was no visible police patrol and security guards were standing chatting in the middle of the market. The back gates of City Hall were secured, although the gate in Donegall Square West was also unguarded.

NaCTSO's report will be discussed at a meeting of the council's strategic policy and resources committee tomorrow. It is then due to be publicly debated at a full council meeting on December 4.

A council spokeswoman told the Belfast Telegraph that while it didn't normally comment on reports before committee meetings took place, it had reviewed its security arrangements and was "actively considering" additional measures "needed to provide protection to the public and staff".

City Hall bosses requested the assessment in the wake of terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London in which civilians were killed and injured in crowded public places.

The document outlines a range of security measures planned for both inside and outside City Hall. It warns that the building's location and layout makes it a "very high risk area" which, if targeted, would likely sustain "catastrophic damage" in a car bomb.

The report states that "the Donegall Square South facade of the City Hall building is a very high-risk area in respect of blast damage in the event of a vehicle-borne explosive attack".

Its "proximity to the street and the building's composition" means that "if attacked in this way (it) would likely sustain catastrophic damage".

The document notes that City Hall is "also vulnerable to attack by an intruder, either by way of an explosive attack using an improvised explosive device (IED) or by way of a 'lone wolf' attack using knives or other weapons".

It states that City Hall is an "iconic high-profile target" which is more easily accessible than Parliament Buildings at Stormont or other government buildings here. The report warns that City Hall is "at particular risk because of the high footfall caused by tourism", including the exhibition and public tours, and "the existence of a public coffee shop facility".

Concern is expressed about the current access that members of the public have to all floors of the building "as there are no containment or automated access-control systems in place even on the upper floors where generally the public should not be".

The report says there "may be a lack of awareness of potential security-related threats amongst non security staff".

It warns that "City Hall grounds are a particularly vulnerable area which may be difficult to adequately secure but which will require explicit attention, particularly the Christmas market".

It states that general security arrangements "appear to work reasonably well" and CCTV is "generally well deployed".

While an attack in Belfast is "perhaps less likely" than in Great Britain, "there remains a significant risk", according to the report. It stresses the danger that "even one of a very small number of radicalised individuals can pose acting alone and using everyday equipment or vehicles".

Council bosses plan to introduce the searching of "significant bags or rucksacks" at City Hall which they want to publicise in order to deter potential attacks.

They are also proposing "some degree of automated access-control system" to the building and additional counter-terrorist training for security staff.

They hope to replace the current system of bollards at the front cobbled area of City Hall with "an upgraded fit-for-purpose facility". Staff, councillors and party workers will also be challenged if they are not wearing their ID passes.

A review and enhancement of CCTV is also proposed with "the evaluation of further software analytics facilities to assist in the monitoring of CCTV images and output".

The document states that some of the security measures will require significant extra funding.

The Christmas Market has been identified as "a specific vulnerability" by NaCTSO. Additional security measures have been discussed with market organisers and the PSNI.

"These include the deployment of large planters around the perimeter which will provide some protection in the case of a vehicle-borne attack (and) some enhancement in terms of the stewarding of the event", the report states.

The NaCTSO is a police unit that supports the 'protect and prepare' strands of the Government's counter-terrorism strategy. It provides help and advice to government and industry, carrying out threat and risk assessments and identifying weakness and vulnerabilities.

The report found that the council's other city centre premises, including the Cecil Ward building in Linenhall Street - where the registrar's office, building control, cleansing services and environmental health are based - are "less attractive as terrorist targets" although "general security housekeeping can always be improved".

A council spokeswoman said last night: "We do not normally comment on reports in advance of committee meetings but on this occasion, we would like to put on record that the council, like most other organisations responsible for public buildings, events and spaces, has reviewed its security arrangements.

"It is actively considering the additional security measures needed to provide protection to the public and staff. In relation to the Christmas Market, these have already been put in place."

She said the Christmas Market had seen the introduction of stalls on the pavement last year.

"Given the expected large numbers of pedestrians that will use the pavement both accessing the stalls, and normal transit along the front of the City Hall, and the close proximity to large volumes of vehicle traffic moving along Donegall Square, the use of planters is seen as a sensible precaution to assist pedestrian safety," she added.

In May, the Belfast Telegraph highlighted how the Spring Continental market at City Hall could be vulnerable to a terror attack in the wake of the Manchester Arena atrocity. Some 23 people died after a homemade bomb exploded during a concert by US singer Ariana Grande.

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