United Kingdom

Afghan withdrawal could trigger a renewed terrorist threat for UK retailers

Retailers must review their preparedness for a potential rise in attacks

Following the West’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, concerns have grown that the Taliban’s success will lead to an increase in terrorism targeted at those nations who took part in the 20-year campaign. While a direct threat to western countries from any Afghanistan originated terrorist activity is probably some months – to a year or more – away, the influence on homegrown individuals inspired by the Taliban could lead to a more immediate increase in attacks. This raised threat level also comes at a time when many countries expect to see a rise in right wing and left-wing extremism as economies rebound post-pandemic and lockdowns ease.

Given this uncertain backdrop, it’s vital that UK retailers – facing potential increased duty of care obligations to employees and shoppers from Protect Duty legislation, – don’t allow other operational pressures to detract from the need to review and commit to their terrorism preparedness and response plans, as well as re-examining their insurance arrangements against an ever-changing terrorism threat and the ever broader impacts the attacks can deliver.

UK terrorists “emboldened”

The MI5’s Director General recently told the BBC that 31 late-stage terror plots had been foiled in the UK over the last four years, combining a mixture of Islamic extremist-based threats but also attacks planned by right-wing extremists. On the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban however, he was unequivocal that those events will have further “heartened and emboldened” UK terrorists in the short term as well as in the long term, with a need to be vigilant “both for the increase in inspired terrorism which has become a real trend for us to deal with over the last five to 10 years, alongside the potential regrowth of al Qaeda-style directed plots."1

For Islamic extremism, it’s now less about damaging infrastructure, and more about targeting people which makes retail premises obvious targets. The UK’s Martyn’s Law (the Protect Duty) – expected soon on the statute books – recognises the risk of terrorism to the public and places a higher duty of care on businesses that have significant public footfall. This includes retailers selling on the high street who will need to show that they have properly planned and prepared to both mitigate the risk of terrorism towards their staff and customers, and be able to show that their incident response is fit for purpose. This requirement of course, comes at a time when many retailers have moved to change their business model by creating destinations offering leisure experiences to draw in crowds, complementing shopping to reverse the trend of declining footfall. For Islamic militant inspired groups, attacks on crowded spaces provide opportunity to create more publicity for their cause.

How to respond to a terrorist threat

From a practical perspective, retailers will need to be aware that any police response to an attack could be several minutes away; until the police arrive, any managed response rests with them. Terrorism is like any other risk in terms of making sure a business understands what the exposure is, what the impact might be and what levers it has in its control to manage the risk. How, for example, to limit the opportunity for any attacker to get close to the people in a retailer’s care? Measures could include quickly being able to restrict ground floor access as well as (where possible) vertical movement through a store; facilitating the safe evacuation of people away from a threat while containing the attacker themselves.

Beyond getting the planning and preparation right, demonstrating this through detailed documentation, and embedding through regular practise of response plans, other areas to address include assessing whether insurance arrangements have adapted to the changing threat. With terrorists increasingly targeting people rather than buildings, property damage costs are unlikely to be the largest (non-life) loss. However, losses from reduced footfall (loss of attraction), or where the police close large areas of a town or city in response to a threat meaning staff and customers can’t access the retail premises, is likely to be more significant (non-damage business interruption). The 2017 panic in Oxford Circus which led to police to cordoning off the area, was the biggest loss from a “terrorist” event in the last decade or so because it happened on Black Friday, even though the alarm itself proved to be false.

Retailers should check whether their insurance will respond to these different circumstances and different types of losses. Many policies include non-damage business interruption cover, but it is worthwhile confirming things like the trigger, limits and time deductible. Exposure to potential liability as a result of a failure of duty of care particularly in the context of Martyn’s Law should be reviewed; both the preparation & response management, as well as the Casualty programme accommodation of the exposure. Another area worth considering is cover for malicious acts. Some of the terrorist events being seen as blurring the lines between acts of violence and acts of terrorism, with Malicious covering a greater spectrum of violent acts.

Don’t downgrade the threat level

As retail heads into one of its most critical peak periods, anything that can derail the potential to claw back some of the lost revenue over the last two years will be catastrophic. While many retailers have been – understandably so – focused on issues like COVID, supply chain issues, and the challenges of getting products to market, their planning and preparation for a possible terrorist attack may have slipped down their priorities even while the threat rises. It’s a risk, however, that cannot afford to be ignored as a genuine threat to the safety of shoppers and employees but also one that has the ability to destroy balance sheets and reputations.

For further information on the issues discussed in this article, please contact Scott Bolton.

1 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-58512901


Whilst care has been taken in the production of this article and the information contained within it has been obtained from sources that Aon UK Limited believes to be reliable, Aon UK Limited does not warrant, represent or guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, completeness or fitness for any purpose of the article or any part of it and can accept no liability for any loss incurred in any way whatsoever by any person who may rely on it. No one should act on any information contained in this article without appropriate professional advice after a thorough examination of the particular situation. In any case any recipient shall be entirely responsible for the use to which it puts this article.

This article has been compiled using information available to us up to 08/10/21.


Scott Bolton
Director Business Development & Network Relations, Aon

07714 638759