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Counter Terrorism

The following article looks at the United Kingdom's counter terrorist (CT) forces. For the purposes of this article, counter terrorism operations include:

  • Arrest / interdiction of suspected terrorists e.g. raiding a premises, intercepting a vehicle or boarding a vessel suspected of bering used by terrorists. Such operations are likely to be pro-active, pre-planned and intelligence-led.

  • Reaction to an on-going incident such as an attack by gunmen e.g. the 2015 attacks in Paris.

  • Containment and subsequent intervention of a siege scenario e.g. a building, plane, vehicle or vessel under terrorists control and with hostages held within.

Police Counter Terrorism Units

The first line of defence for a terror attack in the UK is the police force. Before any of the military units detailed later in this article can go into action on UK soil, authorisation to do so must be given by civilian authorities. This authorisation usually comes from a crisis response committee held in special conference rooms in Whitehall. Sometimes referred to as COBR or COBRA, these committees are headed by the Prime Minister or other top civilian leaders. COBRA analyses the level of threat and determines how to respond. As the politicians and security chiefs sit in committee, it will be the police on the scene of a terrorist incident who will be the first responders.

Each United Kingdom police constabulary maintains a specialist firearms capability with tactical team members trained to Authorised Firearms Officer (AFO) standard or higher. AFOs are roled with carrying out law enforcement operations outside the capability of regular, unarmed officers. AFOs in an Armed Response Vehicle (ARV) unit would typically be the first armed police unit to arrive at the scene of a terrorist attack.

more info: Police Armed Response Units


Some police services, such as the Metropolitan Police Service's SC&O19 Specialist Firearms Command, have officers trained to Counter Terrorist Specialist Firearms officer(CTSFO) level. CTSFOs are trained in hostage rescue, rappelling, fast-roping and dynamic entry - including the use of explosives.

more info: SC&O19 CTSFOs

The numbers of CTSFOs are on the rise and their training makes them more capable of dealing with the sort of scenarios that were previously the sole domain of military special forces such as the SAS. Indeed, if a similar scenario to the 1980 Iranian Embassy siege happened today in London, it is probable that it would be SC&O19 CTSFOs who would intervene.

CTSFOs from police services around the country are linked together in a national CTSFO network. This organisation of interopable CTSFO teams has been established in order to provide a national-level counter terrorism response.

Other Police CT Units

Another police unit that has a counter terrorism role is the British Transport Police (BTP) Counter Terrorism Support Unit who guard the rail network.

more info: BTP CTSU

note: in 2015, London tactical units including from SC&O19 and BTP CTSU took part in a 2-day exercise to test the capital's response to an attack by terrorist gunmen. more info: Operation Strong Tower

The Tactical Support Group of the Ministry Of Defence Police (MDP) is a swat-style unit that is protects Atomic Weapons Establishments. Training includes hostage rescue and the recapture of stolen nuclear weapons.

more info: Ministry Of Defence Police

Other Police CT elements include S015 Counter Terrorism Command which absorbs the former SO12 Special Branch (SB) and SO13 Anti-terrorist Branch (ATB) units. SO15's primary role is gathering intelligence and carrying out investigations related to terrorism. Intel provided by SO15 is often the catalyst for pre-planned CT operations.

Military Counter Terrorism Units

In the event that the civilian authorities decide to call on the military to resolve a terrorist incident, there are a number of units who train for the CT role.:

22 SAS

The UK military's primary counter-terrorism unit is the Army's 22nd Special Air Service. At any time, one full SAS Squadron (around 60 men), designated the Special Projects Team, is on standby to respond to a terrorist incident. Squadrons rotate into the CT role on a six-monthly basis. The SAS wrote the book on rescuing hostages from buildings, planes, trains and vehicles.

more info: SAS counter terrorism

notable SAS CT operation: Operation Nimrod

Special Boat Service

The SBS has a dedicated counter-terrorist unit, designated M Squadron. M Squadron specialises in Maritime Counter Terrorism (MCT) and have developed techniques and equipment for the challenging task of carrying out hostage rescues on oil rigs, cruise ships, ferries and other maritime objectives.

more info : SBS counter terrorism

notable SBS MCT operation : raid on MV Nisha cargo ship

sbs maritime counter terrorism
SBS Maritime Counter Terrorist (MCT) operators aboard a VT Halmatic Arctic RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat). SBS MCT units wear similar clothing to their SAS counterparts, with the addition of Gecko helmets, life jackets, emergency oxygen bottles and other safety gear. The MP5 A3 9mm sub machine gun with Sig Sauer P226 pistol as secondary is a typical configuration. The SBS can approach a MCT objective via surface boats, helicopters or from beneath the water using SDVs / swimming up from submerged Royal Navy submarines.

Special Forces Support Group

It is thought that members of the SFSG have been trained to carry out CT operations. In a typical scenario, such as a large scale CT operation, SFSG operators will augment the SAS/SBS. Members of 1 PARA are trained to work with the SAS while Royal Marines assigned to the SFSG from the Fleet Protection Group will augment SBS MCT operations, continuing a role previously assigned to their forerunners, Commachio Group.

Explosive Ordnance disposal (EOD)

These military bomb diffusal specialists support military and police counter terrorism activities. This support includes the fielding of Assault Improvised Explosive Device Disposal (AIEDD) specialists to support CT operations.

more info: Explosive Ordnance disposal

Aviation Support

There are several RAF / AAC / RN units that are trained to insert / extract and otherwise support UKSF counter terrorism operations.

RAF 7 Squadron

Flying modified Chinook helicopters, 7 Squadron support SAS/SBS/SFSG CT ops. The Chinook's capacity and range make the helicopter an ideal CT asset.

more info : RAF 7 Squadron

RAF 47 Squadron

The Hercules cargo planes operated by 47 Squadron can transport an SAS CT team and all its equipment to anywhere in the world. SBS MCT teams, along with their inflatable boats, can be air dropped into the ocean from the C-130's rear ramp

more info : RAF 47 Squadron

AAC 8 Flight

Using helicopters painted in civilian colours, this specially-trained Army Air Corps unit works closely with 22 SAS, providing covert transport, air assault and reconnaissance for the CT team.

more info : AAC 8 Flight

Commando Helicopter Force

M flight, within 848 NAS of the Commando Helicopter Force, provides support for the SBS MCT Team with its Sea King HC.4 helicopters.

more info : Commando Helicopter Force

815 NAS Maritime Interdiction Flight

MCT support is also provided by a flight of Lynx Mk8 helicopters from 815 NAS.

more info: 815 NAS

Intelligence Support

A vital component of any CT operation is intelligence. A successful assault on a CT objective requires detailed planning bases on intel on the objective itself, the terrorists, the hostages and a host of other information. UKSF includes a number of elements with the ability to gather such intel.

Special Reconnaissance Regiment

Specialising in providing 'eyes on' intelligence.

more info : Special Reconnaissance Regiment

18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment

Experts in electronic eavesdropping, signals intercepts etc

more info : 18 (UKSF) Signals Regiment

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