What the Westminster terror attack taught us


Peter Ship, Senior Industry Consultant of SAS Public Security, South Asia discusses the importance of connecting datasets across public safety agencies.

On 22 March 2017, 52-year-old Khalid Masood carried out a terror attack on Westminster Bridge in London, killing several people and injuring dozens more.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but Peter Ship wonders what governments can learn from such events, so that they are better prepared to respond in the future.

“Just trying to learn the lesson, what could we have done here? What information did we have?” asks Ship, who previously spent 30 years with London’s Metropolitan Police Service. While there, he played a key role in managing intelligence-led operations.

Ship, who has been Senior Industry Consultant of SAS Public Security, South Asia for the last four years, shares with GovInsider the need for data sharing across agencies in an area as complex and crucial as public safety.

Lessons learned

Ship believes that connecting existing datasets in strategic ways could go a long way towards mitigating, and even preventing, these attacks from happening.

“One of the things agencies often say is that they haven’t got the data,” he notes, but he points out that Masood was already on a hotlist as a “low-level terror threat”. While it would have been possible to put him under surveillance, it would have taken up large amounts of manpower over time, he says, so it is understandable he was not under 24 hour surveillance, however a simple level of technical surveillance could have saved lives.

Masood rented the car he used in the attack from a hire company in Birmingham, where he would have had to provide a driver’s license. “In the UK, it’s checked against the DVLA register of drivers that’s linked to the police national computer,” Ship explains. It would have been possible for the police to “receive an alert that a person on the terrorist hotlist is hiring a car”, he suggests.

Joining up datasets

Next, it’s a matter of tracking this individual’s unusual behaviour. Hiring a car and moving out of Birmingham were already out of the ordinary for Masood in particular, but he also drove into central London, says Ship, where he would have encountered several Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras.

The police would have been able to run terrorist hotlists against people that were hiring cars, and then run that against the ANPR database, says Ship. “If we had monitored him and known that he was in the centre of London, you could at least start thinking about stopping the vehicle to ask him why he’s there,” he explains. If this had happened, he would have been found to to be in “illegal” possession of a machete, later used to kill a policeman at the houses of Parliament.

It is incidents such as these that highlight the gaps in agency data after the fact, he believes. While the police responded incredibly quickly - it took them just three minutes to take down Masood - “you can’t deal with these issues without pre-thought and managing some of these things, no matter how good your police response is”, Ship says.
“You can’t deal with these issues without pre-thought and managing some of these things, no matter how good your police response is.”
Governments should take steps to ensure they learn the lessons about intelligence management from such incidents and say, “Let’s now change that so that we can pick up the next one”, he continues.

Public safety in Asia

Public safety agencies in this region still face challenges in joining up the different datasets, he notes, with some still deciding which data was relevant to share. Some countries are facing difficulties getting the police force to share data within its own departments, Ship points out.

“It’s a very old practice to decide what ‘relevant’ information you have and then share it with people,” he says. There’s a need to move from a need-to-know basis to a need-not-to-know basis, he adds.

His advice for public safety agencies in Asia would be to integrate their traditional intelligence management practices with data analytics. Just as important, agencies keen to modernise their systems need to gradually ‘grow’ into these new ways of working. “We can’t just jump from what we’re doing today to this futuristic system. Everyone has to be trained, to understand it,” he says.

When terrorism rears its ugly head, the world stops for a moment. But if police forces and public safety agencies can leverage on data to identify key individuals at crucial times and take action, it can make all the difference in the world.

Peter Ship has headed the SAS Public Security Unit for South Asia since September 2013. Over the past ten years, Ship has worked with a number of police forces and intelligence agencies across the world, helping them to develop and maximise their intelligence systems.

Ship had a notable 30-year career with London’s Metropolitan Police Service, most of which was spent within New Scotland Yard’s Specialist Crime Directorate managing intelligence-led operations. During his last three years as a police officer, Ship led the strategic review of intelligence systems in MPF, which led to major changes including the development and implementation of the SAS ‘intelligence platform’ across the force.