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Big crowds and world leaders will attend the queen's funeral. Security is top of mind

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One week from today monarchs, presidents and prime ministers from around the world will converge on Westminster Abbey in London for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Outside the abbey, they're expecting huge crowds who want to pay their respects. We're already seeing that on streets in Scotland, where people are hoping for a glimpse of the hearse. Many more are expected in London, where the queen lies in state, later this week. Well, you put those crowds and the funeral guestlist packed with dignitaries together, and you have got a formidable challenge for security officials. I'm going to bring in someone with a sense of that challenge. Nick Aldworth is former U.K. national coordinator for counterterrorism. Nick Aldworth, welcome.

NICK ALDWORTH: Hello.

KELLY: Hi. I'm trying to think of what must be the most recent precedent that, if anything, might give something resembling a roadmap. And I was thinking of 25 years ago at the funeral of Princess Diana and all the people who descended on London in the days leading up to that. Is that the closest precedent?

ALDWORTH: I think in terms of the volumes of people arriving, I think we are on a par with Diana. The thing that's changed in that period is the threat profile has changed dramatically.

KELLY: Yeah. Talk to me about that. Twenty-five years - that's a - it's a very different city. It's a very different world.

ALDWORTH: It is, absolutely. And if I go to the reference point of, you know, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, she died a year after 9/11, which, of course, saw the - arguably the global transformation in how we think about terrorism and approach terrorism. Since that time, we've seen that metamorphosis of terrorism take a further step from being, you know, constructed and organized and directed by terrorist entities to almost a societal mobilization of lone actors, as we call them over here - people who are self-radicalizing and then go on to either plan an attack or actually conduct one.

KELLY: To apply that to now, if you were in charge of trying to figure out how to protect and keep everybody safe at these events that will unfold a week from today, what would be the top of the checklist?

ALDWORTH: So the easy one, almost, is vehicles. There are extensive barrier systems around Westminster. A few years ago we invested quite heavily in creating a semi-permanent gating structure there, which - we can effectively close down that footprint to stop any vehicles coming in. The real challenge are these lone actors who more often than not do not feature on the intelligence services' radar and are capable of carrying small, easily concealed bladed weapons in particular into crowds. There is a search and screening operation around the Palace of Westminster, which we call our parliament. So that those people who wish to file past Her Majesty's coffin and pay their respects - they will have been screened. That's a pretty easy and common thing for us to achieve.

KELLY: You've been speaking about roadblocks, searching people for weapons, that type thing. You're also, I suppose, worrying about airspace. You're also worrying about what's going on underground with the tube, the subway system there in London, protecting all of it simultaneously.

ALDWORTH: Yeah, you're absolutely right. So actually, the safest place to be over the next week or so will be in that central footprint because most of our resources will be focused on that area. In terms of airspace, we now have a much more sophisticated approach to protecting against drones.

KELLY: I was going to say that was another thing that would have changed radically since Princess Diana's funeral 25 years ago.

ALDWORTH: Yeah, absolutely. We've had some recent cases in the U.K. where drones have been used nefariously. And we've been very, very effective at detecting them, tracking them back and arresting offenders.

KELLY: Here in the United States, when there's a big state funeral, it tends to happen often at Washington National Cathedral. And you have Secret Service playing a lead role. You have all kinds of other agencies involved, from the local D.C. police to the security entourages that accompany foreign leaders who may have come to town. Who is running the show in the U.K.?

ALDWORTH: So the Metro Police Service are running the show. There is no ambiguity about that at all. They are incredibly well-practiced at working with visiting nationals. The Americans are very demanding customers, and that's OK. You know, your president would expect to be treated in the same way over here as King Charles would be expected to be treated at some future point. Hopefully he visits the U.S.

KELLY: Nick Aldworth, thank you.

ALDWORTH: You're welcome.

KELLY: He is former U.K. national coordinator for counterterrorism, also founder and director of Risk to Resolution Ltd., a private security consultancy.

(SOUNDBITE OF DMITRI ENSEMBLE'S "FLJOTAVIK (ARR. FOR VIOLIN AND STRING ORCHESTRA)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.