Militarism examinedUK Special Forces

Defending the Realm: a historical overview of UK Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism (Pt. 2)

The attacks of September 11th, 2001, resulted in nearly three thousand deaths and highlighted the evolving nature of the terrorist threat confronted by the international community. As American forces entered Afghanistan in pursuit of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the United Kingdom deployed its own contingent, drawn largely from the ranks of the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Service (SBS). [1] The UK presence in Afghanistan continued through 2002, and the subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 ensured that United Kingdom Special Forces remained committed to a relentless operational tempo across two theatres of war. By September of 2005, a formal division of responsibilities between the SAS and SBS had been established to placate growing tensions between both units: the SAS would handle Iraq, while Afghanistan remained the focus of the SBS. [2] 

In addition to a consistent cycle of overseas deployments, UKSF retained its responsibility for maintaining a high readiness domestic counterterrorism capability. In December of 2001, fears of an attack on British soil briefly materialised, following a warning from the American intelligence community. Sources reporting to CIA officers in Mauritania claimed that a large quantity of methomyl, a pesticide identified as having the potential to serve as a makeshift chemical weapon, had been loaded onto a London-bound steamer named the MV Nisha. The SBS was alerted on the 21st of December to prepare for an opposed boarding operation. By 2001, the SBS had moved away from maintaining a dedicated maritime counterterrorism capability in M Squadron and, instead, began cycling each of its four squadrons through the domestic intervention role; on that morning, C Squadron held the stand-by, while M and Z Squadrons were deployed to Afghanistan. [3] Reinforced by twenty-six members of the SAS as a result of the MV Nisha’s size, the combined force was broken into four-man elements and accompanied by explosive ordnance disposal technicians to deal with any devices found aboard.  

In international waters off the Sussex coast, the MV Nisha was intercepted by the Royal Navy Frigate HMS Sutherland, which released the joint SAS/SBS team on inflatable craft, and RAF Chinooks transporting the remainder of the assault force. The bloodless operation, completed in just under thirty minutes, saw the crew taken completely by surprise. No evidence of a methomyl-based chemical weapon was recovered, and the MV Nisha was released following an additional five-day search aboard. [4] Though a false alarm, the ability of United Kingdom Special Forces to execute a no-notice domestic counterterrorism operation had been proven.  

Terror Strikes London 

If the events of September 11th demonstrated the sophistication and ambition of Islamic extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, it was the coordinated suicide bombings of three London Underground trains and a double-decker bus on the 7th of July that emphasised the direct nature of the threat facing the United Kingdom. The attacks, which resulted in fifty-six fatalities, were followed two weeks later by an additional series of explosions on the 21st of July. Though no link was uncovered between the perpetrators, three London Underground trains and a single double-decker bus were again targeted by improvised explosive devices; in contrast to the 7/7 bombings, however, the devices failed to function as intended and resulted in no deaths. [5] 

London’s Metropolitan Police Service initiated an immediate investigation. Since the events of 7/7, the terror threat level had been raised to ‘critical’, and the Metropolitan Police’s Anti-Terrorism Branch, SO-13, assumed responsibility for proactive operations aimed at capturing those responsible for the failed 21/7 bombings. [6] In addition to intelligence support from the Security Services, SO-13 would be aided by other units in the MPS and the Ministry of Defence: Special Branch, SO-12, provided the plainclothes surveillance teams needed to monitor potential suspects; the Specialist Firearms Command, SO-19, was responsible for interdicting and detaining the bombers; and United Kingdom Special Forces embedded with both SO-12 and SO-19 to provide further manpower as well as capabilities not available to the civilian police.  

UKSF had maintained a permanent presence in the capital since at least 2004. Members of the 14th Intelligence Company, renamed the Special Reconnaissance Regiment three months prior to the 7/7 attacks, were seconded to New Scotland Yard where they provided expertise in physical and technical surveillance honed over decades of counterterrorism operations in Northern Ireland. [7] The Counter-Revolutionary Warfare Wing from 22 SAS also expanded its footprint in London, forward deploying an element to offer tactical guidance, explosive method of entry, and assault improvised explosive device disposal support to the MPS. [8] 

On the 22nd of July, it was an SRR member attached to SO-12 that identified a suspicious individual leaving an address found in a bag discarded by a 21/7 bomber. The operator, ‘Frank’, was unable to capture video of the man to transmit to the MPS’ Gold Command, meaning that senior decision-makers were relying entirely upon the judgement of the surveillance team. [9] While other members of the SO-12 team indicated that the subject was a potential match for one of the 21/7 perpetrators, no confirmation was given, and the man remained under observation based largely on ‘Frank’s’ initial suspicion. A series of confused communication exchanges and MPS concerns of additional attacks resulted in Silver Commander Cressida Dick giving the order for SO-19 to prevent the individual from entering the Underground. Firearms officers confronted the man on a train at Stockwell Station and, fearful of an attempt to detonate a concealed device, opened fire. [10] The deceased individual was subsequently identified as Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian electrician with no ties to the 21/7 bombers. 

A week later, UKSF again saw action when two of the 21/7 perpetrators were cornered by police at the Dalgarno Gardens Housing Association Complex in Ladbroke Grove. Specialist Firearms Officers of SO-19’s Red Team lacked the ability to employ explosives to forcibly enter strongholds, and, as a result, a team from 22 SAS was sent to assist. After the SAS team had breached the front door, Red Team deployed CS gas and forced both suspects out of the building. [11] The incident, though limited in scope, highlighted the need for an explosive method of entry capability within the MPS’ Specialist Firearms Command, a training gap that would be remedied with support from UKSF. [12] 

Urban Marauders 

Despite now participating in simultaneous engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, United Kingdom Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism only expanded in the aftermath of the 2005 attacks. The following year, a new Special Forces Support Group was formally activated at MOD St Athans in Wales. Drawn from 1st Battalion of the Parachute Regiment, the Royal Marines, and the RAF Regiment, the new unit was tasked with providing a dedicated infantry capability to reinforce the SAS, SBS, and SRR in addition to fulfilling specialist responsibilities such as heavy weapons and emergency decontamination. [13] As with its SAS and SBS counterparts, the SFSG also adopted a rotational system, with each company cycling through domestic and overseas counterterrorism roles. This development would prove fortuitous given the evolving nature of the terrorist threat facing the United Kingdom. 

The success of a UKSF response to domestic terrorism in the 20th century rested on the assumption that perpetrators would take hostages as a means of obtaining specific political concessions; while Home Office police services focused on containing an incident and negotiating, SAS and SBS personnel could dedicate their time and resources towards planning a tactical resolution under optimal conditions. The carefully choreographed deliberate assault was, thus, expected to be the norm. By the turn of the millennium, however, terrorist groups began developing tactics which sought to negate the advantages afforded by the contain-and-negotiate approach employed by Western governments. As opposed to taking hostages and fortifying a stronghold in preparation for an assault, terrorist organisations now hoped to launch attacks which would maximise casualties prior to the arrival of security forces. Known as the ‘fidayeen’ attack, this approach began in Pakistan and soon spread throughout the world. [14] 

The 2002 Nord Ost Theatre Siege in Moscow and the 2004 Beslan School Massacre represented the first instances of the fidayeen concept in action against Western targets. Both instances mixed elements of conventional and mass casualty terrorism: while civilians were forcibly held, the outrageous political demands in addition to continued refusals to negotiate indicated that the hostages served not as means to obtain concessions but as shields to slow the security response. [15] The 2008 Mumbai Attacks, however, abandoned any semblance to terrorism of the 20th century. Perpetrated by Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, the attacks saw ten perpetrators exploit the highly connected nature of a key Indian urban centre to move between crowded areas and inflict massive casualties before authorities could mount an effective response. [16] Though hostages were also taken, particularly at the Taj Mahal Palace and Trident Hotel, the militants’ decision to do so was, again, centred on a desire to prolong the incident and retain media attention. 

These incidents, now categorised as marauding terror attacks, served as major warnings to British authorities and highlighted the inadequacies of previous resolution strategies. It was felt that no longer could civilian police afford to contain and negotiate, while the on-call counterterrorism squadrons scrambled from Poole or Hereford. With the 2012 London Olympics looming over the horizon, cooperation between the Home Office and United Kingdom Special Forces expanded dramatically, as police services now sought to meet potential attackers head-on even prior to the arrival of specialist military support.  

The Games 

Preparations for the 2012 London Summer Olympics saw an unprecedented mobilisation of the United Kingdom’s military, police, and intelligence infrastructure. Members of United Kingdom Special Forces were intimately involved in planning the response to any major security incident during the games, particularly in the shadow of the marauding terror attacks in Mumbai of four years earlier. In addition to maintaining the usual domestic counterterrorism alert force, now composed of a squadron each from the SAS and SBS, in addition to a company from the Special Forces Support Group, members of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment were actively involved in assisting the police’s Counter Terrorism Command in surveilling potential attackers. [17] The most enduring legacy of United Kingdom Special Forces in the build-up to the 2012 Olympics, however, lay in the creation of the Counter Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officer program. 

The events of Mumbai demonstrated the need for a more robust firearms response within civilian police services, capable of diverting, suppressing, and neutralising multiple attackers in the initial moments of a terrorist incident. Prior to the games, the armed police response to marauding terror attacks revolved around two tiers of officers: the Armed Response Vehicle Officer, who operated from largely marked vehicles and generally responded to spontaneous incidents exceeding the capabilities of unarmed police, and the Specialist Firearms Officer, trained in additional contingencies such as building assaults and pre-planned counterterrorism operations. [18] Most territorial police services possessed officers trained to the ARV and SFO standards; however, London’s role as the 2012 Olympic city offered the perfect springboard to drastically elevate the degree of training and preparedness on a national level.  

Beginning in the Metropolitan Police Service’s SCO-19 Specialist Firearms Command, existing Specialist Firearms Officers were upskilled to the new Counter Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officer certification. [19] With support from UKSF, officers received training that had been largely limited to military special operators: close quarters battle with live ammunition, maritime counterterrorism, and retaking hijacked commercial aircraft. [20] Alongside officers from five additional territorial forces – Thames Valley Police, West Midlands Police, Greater Manchester Police, West Yorkshire Police, and Police Scotland – three Combined Firearms Response Teams with standardised equipment and procedures were created. [21] Planners now possessed a national capability to respond to mass hostage takings and large-scale terrorist incidents at any venue during the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Rather than simply maintaining a cordon until the arrival of military support, the CFRTs could be transported by Chinook helicopters or ground convoys and directly confront any attackers either unilaterally or alongside elements of United Kingdom Special Forces. 

Since the end of the 2012 Olympics, the Counter Terrorism Specialist Firearms Officer capability has remained in place, and has only expanded. The program saw further growth in the build-up to the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the 2014 NATO Wales Summit as well as in the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks. [22] Today, CTSFOs, easily spotted in their distinctive grey uniforms, are based out of six regional counterterrorism hubs from which officers will gather and respond collectively to major incidents anywhere in the United Kingdom. Though CTSFOs have not replaced the on-call domestic alert force from the SAS, SBS, and SFSG, the program’s expansion has highlighted an enduring truth in UK security policy – that counterterrorism remains the primacy of civilian police.  

Blue and Green 

Between 2014 and 2016, Europe experienced the greatest number of deaths as a result of Islamic terrorism than all previous years combined; 2015 alone saw two marauding terrorist firearms incidents in France, events which emphasised the continued need for the United Kingdom to refine its domestic counterterrorism capability. The chain of command governing the deployment of specialist military forces was further streamlined and the UKSF response package adapted to ensure a rapid response to coordinated and mobile attackers. Today, marauding terrorist incidents are codenamed Operation Plato and met with a multi-layered response escalating from unarmed police to the arrival of military forces. [23] 

Initial efforts will be primarily composed of unarmed officers to assist in clearing members of the public, while Armed Response Vehicles arrive to provide the first firearms response to an attack. Tactical Firearms Commanders, responsible for commanding police operations on-scene, are then instructed to contact the CTSFO network and request the immediate deployment of the Intervention Response Team. [24] The IRT refers to an element of approximately sixteen officers on a short notice-to-move and possessing the full range of specialist capabilities ranging from enhanced ballistic trauma kits to chemical agents and explosive breaching tools. Simultaneously, the Metropolitan Police’s Counter Terrorism Command alerts the Senior National Coordinator for Counter Terrorism, the first individual with a national strategic overview of the police and military response. [25] It is at this point that the armed forces enter the scene. 

Should an incident continue beyond this point, the UKSF Lead Assault Team is deployed in support of Home Office police services. Drawn from the on-call counterterrorism squadron of the SAS and SBS, the LAT is a tailorable package which can include members of the SFSG as well as enablers such as Special Forces Medics from the Medical Support Unit, Special Forces Communicators of the 18 (UKSF) Signal Regiment, and assault IED disposal specialists from 821 EOD & Search Squadron and the Royal Navy’s Tactical Diving Group. The Lead Assault Team was most prominently seen in the immediate aftermath of the 2017 London Bridge attack, when a white-and-blue Dolphin II helicopter, nicknamed ‘Blue Thunder’, from the Army Air Corps’ 658 Squadron landed members of 22 SAS’ B Squadron to aid the Metropolitan Police. [26] Though 658 Squadron, garrisoned in Hereford alongside the SAS, possesses five of these aircraft, the Lead Assault Team is also capable of arriving at an incident site in RAF helicopters and unmarked civilian vehicles. Regardless of transport, the arrival of the LAT signifies the initial military commitment to the resolution of terrorist incidents on British soil. 

This joint effort by police firearms officers and United Kingdom Special Forces represents a fusion of law enforcement and military capabilities, a veritable ‘blue-green’ hybrid to respond to terrorism anywhere in the country. In addition to combined training such as the 2016 Exercise Winchester Accord, which saw 23 Troop of the SAS’ G Squadron combat multiple armed attackers alongside the Greater Manchester Police, civilian police services have carried out numerous sensitive counterterrorism operations alongside UKSF. [27] Members of 22 SAS and Alpha Troop of 821 EOD & Search Squadron joined GMP CTSFOs on a series of raids following the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing; clad in body armour and helmets on top of civilian clothing, UKSF operators were easily spotted with their distinctive C8 carbines and electronic countermeasure packs. [28] A pre-planned operation in 2018 against a terror suspect successfully disrupted a planned Christmas bombing in Newcastle, with two members of UKSF again photographed on scene alongside their police counterparts. [29] Most recently in November of 2021, operators from 16 Troop of D Squadron, 22 SAS, assisted the Northwest Counter Terrorism Unit following the attempted bombing of Liverpool Women’s Hospital. [30] While it was civilian law enforcement that apprehended the three suspects, members of the SAS were seen providing armed overwatch and handling a military working dog which accompanied armed officers on the raid. 

It is important to note that in all these cases, United Kingdom Special Forces were not the primary action arm. Territorial police services retain primacy in the field of domestic counterterrorism and, with the further growth and development of their specialist firearms units, now possess the capability to respond to incidents that would have traditionally required support from the Ministry of Defence. Exceptions to this exist, and certain mission profiles remain under the purview of the armed forces given the degree of equipment, training, and resources required; notable among these is maritime counterterrorism, with the SBS undertaking two high-profile operations in 2018 and 2020 to recapture the Italian vessel Grande Tema and Liberian oil tanker Nave Andromeda after being hijacked by stowaways. [31, 32] 


United Kingdom Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism is a seemingly contradictory facet of modern military studies – while the specific roles and capabilities of these units at home remains a highly compartmentalised component of the United Kingdom’s national security strategy, it is also the subject of widespread sensationalism and fascination. From the first videos of black-clad SAS troopers on the balcony of 16 Princes Gates to present-day photographs of the ‘Blue Thunder’ helicopter landing on London Bridge, the image of the Special Forces operator at work domestically has become a source of public intrigue and synonymous with the enduring campaign against terrorism in the United Kingdom.  

Brushing past these dramatic representations to arrive at far more profound questions regarding the use of military force on British soil, however, requires that we understand the history behind United Kingdom Special Forces at home. The men-in-black who abseiled onto the balcony of the Iranian Embassy in 1980 did not come from nowhere but, instead, represented the culmination of nearly a decade of closely-held preparation that continues to this day. And if recent events are any indication, the presence of UKSF at the tip of the domestic counterterrorism spear remains assured well into the future. 

To read the first part of this two-part series go here: Defending the Realm: a historical overview of UK Special Forces involvement in domestic counterterrorism (Pt. 1)


[1] Neville, Leigh. Special Forces in the War on Terror (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2015): 161. 

[2] Urban, Mark. Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq (London: Little, Brown Book Group, 2010): 186. 

[3] Lewis, Damien. Bloody Heroes (London: Arrow Books, 2007): 32. 

[4] “2001: Terror alert as police seize cargo ship,” BBC On This Day, 2005, 

[5] “The July 21 failed bombings,” The Guardian, 2008, 

[6] Stockwell One: Investigation into the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell underground station on 22 July 2005 (London: Independent Police Complaints Commission, 2006): 18. 

[7] Stockwell Inquiry Transcript (London: Independent Police Complaints Commission, 2006): 94 

[8] Neville, Leigh. The SAS: 1983-2014 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2016): 22. 

[9] Stockwell Inquiry Transcript, 36. 

[10] Stockwell One, 65-67. 

[11] Rayment, Sean, “SAS joined police for terror raids,” The Telegraph, 2005 

[12] Smith, Stephen, London’s Armed Police: Up Close and Personal (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019): 168. 

[13] “Special Forces Support Unit,”, 2006, 

[14] Mahadevan, Prem. The Role of SWAT Units Amidst Changing Dynamics of Counterterrorist Hostage Rescue (Oslo: Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, 2012): 8. 

[15] Mahadevan, The Role of SWAT Units, 9-10. 

[16] Hashim, Ahmed S. Cities Under Siege: Mass Casualty Urban Terrorism Assaults (Singapore: S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, 2016): 5-6. 

[17] Gardham, Duncan, “Special forces team tracked Republican terror cell in London,” The Telegraph, 2011, 

[18] Morris, Steven, “By the book: how force trains its firearms unit,” The Guardian, 2004, 

[19] McKibbin, Ross, “Live Fire Advanced Skills House,” Mayor of London Office for Policing and Crime, 2018, 

[20] Dodd, Vikram, “Scotland Yard creates SAS-style unit to counter threat of terrorist gun attack,” The Guardian, 2015, 

[21] Evans, Gary, TACTICAL SUPPORT OCU REPORT – THAMES VALLEY POLICE AUTHORITY PERFORMANCE REVIEW COMMITTEE 9 OCTOBER 2012 (Kidlington: Thames Valley Police, 2012): 35. Accessible at: 

[22] “Statement of [F1],” Manchester Arena Inquiry, 2021, 

[23] “Operation PLATO: meaning, identification and declaration,” Manchester Arena Inquiry, 2021, 

[24] “Irrelevant and Sensitive,” Manchester Arena Inquiry, 2021, 

[25] Ibid. 

[26] Rogoway, Tyler, “About That ‘Blue Thunder’ Counter-Terror Chopper That Landed On London Bridge,” The War Zone, 2017, 

[27] “Debrief Report,” Manchester Arena Inquiry, 2022, 

(For images of UKSF personnel during Exercise Winchester Accord, please consult the

following link. Note the callsign patch of the individual in the second slide: ‘G’ indicates G Squadron, ‘23’ identifies the operator as belonging to the maritime-focused 23 Troop, while ‘N’ serves as a personal identifier) 

[28] Butler, Katie and Alexandra Rucki, “Soldiers and police armed with machine guns raid block of flats in Manchester city centre,” Manchester Evening News, 2017, 

[29] Evans, Martin, and Robert Mendick, “Police foil suspected Christmas bomb plot after raiding house in Newcastle,” The Telegraph, 2018, 

[30] Faulkner, Doug and Sue Paz, “Liverpool explosion: Three arrested under Terrorism Act after car blast at hospital,” BBC News, 2021, 

(For images of UKSF personnel during police raids, please consult the following link. Note the callsign patch of the individual in the first slide: ‘D’ indicates D Squadron, ‘16’ identifies the operator as belonging to the military freefall-focused 16 Troop, while ‘M’ serves as a personal identifier) 

[31] “SBS Commandos Storm Hijacked Cargo Ship,” Forces News, 2018, 

[32] Newdick, Thomas, “This Is The Elite Unit That Raided The Tanker Threatened By Stowaways Off The UK Coast,” The War Zone, 2020,