A counter-terrorism exercise in Manchester’s Trafford Centre on May 9, which involved a fake suicide bomber shouting “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly before simulating the detonation of a bomb, has come under criticism from community groups.
It is estimated that 2000 personnel took part in the drill codenamed Exercise Winchester Accord, which has been in the planning since December last year, and is the biggest counter-terrorism exercise of its kind. It included three scenarios based on the attack on the Westgate Shopping Centre, in Kenya, in 2013, followed by a manhunt similar to the one after the Paris attacks last year.
Dr Erinma Bell, who was made an MBE for her anti-gun campaign work in Manchester, was among those criticising the decision to use such a direct religious phrase.
“We need to move away from stereotypes if we want to achieve real learning,” she wrote on Twitter. “A terrorist can be anyone.”
Labour MEP Afzal Khan followed suit, saying, “[It is] Sad that [a] totally inappropriate use of phrase spoiled a successful exercise.”
Anti-Islamophobia group the Community Safety Forum called the use of the phrase offensive. “This sort of thing panders to stereotypes and further divides us” a spokesperson said, adding, “It will increase anti-Muslim hate crime.”
Chairman of Manchester-based community group Saath Saath, Azhar Shah, told local news sources that there should be an enquiry held into the matter, stressing that “an apology is not going to mend the damage caused by this.”
In an immediate response to the criticisms, Greater Manchester Police’s Assistant Chief Constable, Gary Shewan, said the decision was “unacceptable” and apologised for any offence caused.
In a statement released by GMP, he said: “It is a necessity for agencies including the police to train and prepare using exercises such as this, so that we would be in the best possible position to respond in the event that the unthinkable happened and an attack took place.
“The scenario for this exercise is based on an attack by an extremist Daesh-style organisation and the scenario writers have centred the circumstances around previous similar attacks of this nature, mirroring details of past events to make the situation as real life as possible for all of those involved.
“However, on reflection we acknowledge that it was unacceptable to use this religious phrase immediately before the mock suicide bombing, which so vocally linked this exercise with Islam. We recognise and apologise for the offence that this has caused.”
Greater Manchester’s police and crime Commissioner, Tony Lloyd, said: “The public expects the highest standard of training where all of our emergency services locally work together effectively with those with national responsibility to keep the UK safe.
“This planning event has helped ensure that should the unthinkable ever happen, Greater Manchester will be ready.
“However, it is frustrating the operation has been marred by the ill-judged, unnecessary and unacceptable decision by organisers to have those playing the parts of terrorists to shout ‘Allahu Akbar’ before setting off their fake bombs.
“It didn’t add anything to the event, but has the potential to undermine the great community relations we have in Greater Manchester.”
Later on in the week, Chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, Ian Hopkins, drew conclusions about the event, stating that it was a success. However, he added that: “One learning point has been that future exercises need to take more cognisance of cultural and religious sensitivities at the planning stages and community groups should be brought in to advise. We have raised this with the directors of the exercise. The religious phrase that was used and caused offence was not scripted and did not involve any police officer or GMP employee…”
The three-day exercise ended with the terrorist actors being caught in a Manchester suburb after Armed Forces were flown in by helicopter.