Gibraltar’s law enforcement and emergency services were involved in a major exercise on Thursday designed to test their response to a terrorist attack.
The exercise, called LIVEX, involved role-playing scenarios for a series of interconnected events centred on terrorist attacks across several locations.
Ahead of the exercise, officials were at pains to stress that this was not a response to any specific threat intelligence, but rather an annual exercise that had been put on hold for several years as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scenarios were challenging and dramatic in equal measure.
They included reports of a suspicious vessel at sea, a suicide explosion at the Special Olympics Sports Complex, the discovery and controlled explosion at Little Bay, and a marauding terrorist attack and hostage situation in the vicinity of Parson’s Lodge.
The exercise was organised by the Office of Civil Contingencies and provided an important opportunity for emergency services, agencies and the military to practice their counter-terrorist response procedures, tactics and strategies.
It was coordinated at a strategic level by the Strategic Coordinating Group at No.6 Convent Place, co-chaired by the Minister for Civil Contingencies Samantha Sacramento and the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Cathal Yeats.
A Tactical Coordinating Group operated from New Mole House, whilst exercising agencies each operated their own command structures through the day as they were met with unforeseen challenges as the exercise unfolded.
The objectives were to preserve life and reduce harm, search and apprehend suspects, increase the threat level to ‘CRITICAL’, and adopt the counter-terrorist response level ‘EXCEPTIONAL’ as the role-playing scenario worsened.
It tested Gibraltar’s immediate counter-terrorist response, as well as offering an opportunity for emergency services, responding agencies and departments to test their resilience and capacity to deal with an operation of this nature and its aftermath.
A de-briefing session found the exercise had gone well overall, though it was not without its shortcomings.
There were problems redirecting traffic, for example, as police officers were called to a genuine incident – somewhat more routine, thankfully - even as the exercise required their presence elsewhere as part of the role-playing scenarios under way.
And the presence of armed police units and the bomb disposal team, coupled to ‘casualties’ designed to add realism to the exercise, caused some alarm among passers-by unaware that this was an exercise designed to rehearse a response capacity that everyone hopes will never be put to the test in real life.
On the ground the combination of role-playing and real demands added yet another layer of complexity to the exercise.
Mr Yeats said that alongside the exercise, it was also “business as usual” for the police teams involved.
“So this was an excellent scenario, the resources had to respond to a real live incident,” he said.
“Our resources today have been in great part those that would have been working normally throughout the course of business [on a normal day].”
“So clearly, we've had to police the community and have a consideration for the exercise scenario and the urgency that required at any point in time.”
He said a critical element of the exercise was the flow of communication between the strategic command at No.6 Convent Place, the tactical command at New Mole House and the tactical groups on the ground.
“Our communication flow has been what we'd expect in the circumstances and I think everything has gone as well as we could hope for in the context of an exercise,” he said.
“Remember, this is about testing our plans, protocols, command and control procedures.”
Ivor Lopez, head of civil contingencies, said the exercise would be carefully evaluated in the coming days to identify any areas that can be improved and put to the test in future exercises.
But he said a key challenge with exercises of this nature is to push the teams involved as much as possible, while at the same time allowing Gibraltar to continue to function as normal.
“That is a balance of real lifetime deployments with those which are involved in the exercise,” he said.
‘In a real event, clearly, we will make decisions to, say, lock down the whole of Gibraltar, perhaps divert flights and so on.”
“The response in an exercise would not always show what would be on the ground [in a real event], so we need to be very selective in the parts that we want to exercise.”
Ernest Danino, from the civil contingencies department and the deputy director of the exercise, acknowledged the difficulty of achieving that balance between realism and real life.
“It's difficult because when you're in an exercise, you know it's an exercise and it’s not the same as being in the real thing,” he said.
“But it sets the scene.”
The exercise had been months in the planning and the date was set a year in advance.
Samantha Sacramento, the Minister for Civil Contingencies, echoed the view that despite occasional challenges, it had gone very well.
“This LIVEX was an important opportunity to test Gibraltar’s counter-terrorist response procedures in a holistic way and in a way that is as close as possible to a real-life scenario,” she said.
“This is the first such opportunity since before the pandemic, whilst this counter-terrorist LIVEX would normally have been routinely scheduled once a year.”
“Plans for the LIVEX and its scenarios began in April 2022.”
“An enormous amount of work goes into preparing for an exercise such as this, and I’d like to sincerely thank everyone involved in its planning and operation, particularly the active players and actors who have been working for long hours in bad weather.”
A view on the ground
The scenario presented to the response teams started with a boat out at sea carrying migrants who provided information about a second suspicious boat.
The next report was of a blast at the Special Olympics hall with multiple casualties and some fatalities, the result of a suspected suicide attack.
That was followed by a report of a vessel in Little Bay with a suspicious bag on board, requiring the intervention of the bomb disposal team.
That was followed by a report of a terrorist in Parson’s Lodge, which provided the cue for a response by armed teams from the RGP and the GDP.
The press was invited to cover three of the elements of the exercise and witness the emergency response up close.
At the Special Olympics hall shortly at 9.15, a call was made to emergency services stating an explosion had occurred.
Emergency services were immediately dispatched to the area.
First on the scene were the fire fighters who were there in ten minutes, next the RGP and finally the ambulance.
Taking control of the situation, fighters geared up to enter a building that was dark and full of smoke, liaising with the RGP throughout.
As the fire fighters entered the building, they cleared each room as they came upon it, to ensure no casualty was inside.
The scenario was very realistic as they entered the main in complete darkness, guided only by torches as they searched for casualties and evacuated them to safety.
The ‘casualties’ were actors who cried out for help, adding further urgency and realism in room filled with dry ice to simulate smoke.
Outside, RGP officers on the scene had to deal with an aggressive member of the public – also an actor - determined to gain entry into the building.
At Little Bay shortly after 1pm, a call was made by a man walking his dog about the suspect vessel and bag.
RGP officers patrolling in the area were on the scene while the call was still being made.
They did a quick scan of the situation and asked relevant questions but were then called away to deal with a real incident taking place elsewhere on the Rock.
They left and many minutes passed before it was clear something was amiss.
No RGP officers were at the scene as the exercise unfolded and neither was the EOD bomb disposal team.
The EOD truck is too large to get to Little Bay via the Rosia tunnels and instead can only reach the location going against the flow of traffic through Keightley Way.
In the event, with the RGP responding to a real incident, it took over 30 minutes before they arrived.
Once there the “robot” was deployed from the truck and conducted a controlled explosion to neutralise the bag.
Then just after 1.30pm, there was a report of a fatal stabbing near Rosia Bay – again, all part of the role-playing – and eyewitness statements that a terrorist had entered Parson’s Lodge.
In the middle of the road lay a dummy with a sheet draped over it, which alarmed some people who were not part of the exercise.
There was some confusion too as a number of cars entered the area and were turned back by civilians aware of the exercise turned them around.
Just over 15minutes from the call to emergency services, the armed response teams were on the scene.
Gunfire from Parson's Lodge echoed in the area, startling some dogs out enjoying some time off their leashes in Rosia Bay.
In formation, armed officers snaked their way along the road and buildings to Parson Lodge, calling out for people to surrender.
One hostage was able to walk free but was treated as a potential hostile and was arrested, arms in the air.
The unit then made their way into Parson's Lodge to neutralise the terrorist.
Their tactics are closely guarded for obvious reasons, and no media were allowed in for that element of the exercise.