Standing Up to Modern Terrorism: How the Hong Kong Police Force Strives to Keep Hong Kong One of the World’s Safest Cities

Terrorism has changed drastically over the last few decades, with a move away from hostage taking and ransom seeking which were mostly negotiable during the 1970s and 1980s, to attacks on soft targets with the aim of creating mass casualties, extensive damage, sewing a thread of fear into the fabric of society and damaging the confidence of the targeted community. This was epitomized by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.

In recent years, organized terrorist groups such as al Qaeda have dissolved into regional sub-groups, and a new form of attack―characterized by the radicalization of homegrown individuals either through their own efforts or supported by groups, has come to the fore. These individuals strike when and where it is least expected. With technical knowledge and ideological materials for self-radicalization easily available through the Internet, this form of terrorism is increasingly common. It is also far more difficult to prepare for, or respond to, than its more institutional predecessors.

A number of incidents illustrate this so-called “lone wolf” paradigm. In July 2011, a Norwegian extremist carried out a well orchestrated bombing attack followed by shootings in Oslo, resulting in the deaths of 77 individuals, mostly teenagers. In March 2012, an extreme Islamist killed seven people, including soldiers and children, in southern France. More lately, the United States was shaken by the terrorist attack in Boston in which improvised explosive devices were used to target innocent members of the public during a major sporting event, and the United Kingdom was horrified by the brutal murder of an off duty British soldier outside a military barracks in London. Modern open societies around the world are facing the difficult dual challenge of maintaining their open systems while safeguarding lives and property and maintaining social tranquility against more unpredictable threats.

Hong Kong and Terrorism

As an active member of the international community, an international city, and a part of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong is not immune from the worldwide scourge of terrorism.[1] In line with the changing threat, in recent years Hong Kong’s counter-terrorism (CT) policies, tactics, and priorities have evolved.

The Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF)[2] plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the community is kept safe from modern terrorism and that terrorist related activities are not conducted within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). In the HKSAR Government, the operational responsibility to combat terrorism rests mainly with the Commissioner of the HKPF, which goes hand in hand with the vision and mission of keeping Hong Kong one of the safest cities in the world.[3] In the Commissioner’s Operational Priorities 2013, an annual strategic document promulgated for the deployment reference of frontline commanders, counter terrorism again stands as one of the seven key operational areas in the year, a position it has consistently occupied ever since the inception of the COP in 2007 as well as its predecessor which was known as Commissioner’s Operational Targets between 2004 and 2006.

Counter Terrorism as Every Police Officer’s Responsibility

Traditionally, CT responsibilities in the HKPF have been mainly the preserve of specialized units at the Headquarters level, including the Special Duties Unit which is modeled on the British Special Air Service; the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau which has an extensive collaboration and sharing network with similar units globally; the Police Negotiation Cadre which takes up the important duty of engaging terrorists in dialogue and negotiation; and the Airport Security Unit which is specially tasked with enhancing aviation security. The Organized Crime and Triad Bureau, which represents the apex in the criminal detective field in Hong Kong with a team of most experienced and professional investigators, takes the lead in conducting any terrorist-related investigation. This Bureau seeks constant upgrading of its investigation capabilities, from crime scene investigation, to scientific evidence collection, to the development of leads and information through various methods.

However, since the shift to the new “lone wolf” paradigm, there has been a reflection and realization that an over-reliance on these specialized units, which are largely responsive in nature, could lead to an inevitable operational time gap when an instant response is required. A new philosophy focusing on prevention and preparedness is now preferable to relying entirely on response, and efforts are being made to promote CT in the mindset of each and every officer in the HKPF. This can be seen clearly in the HKPF’s CT strategy which comprises the four elements of Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery (known as 2Ps & 2Rs) with emphasis on the 2Ps and a stated aim of ensuring that all officers, not just those from specialized CT units, are aware that the fight against terrorism is every officer’s responsibility. On the initiative of the HKPF’s senior management, additional new units have been established in recent years to better support both frontline Police operations and the professional work of existing CT units so as to better integrate the HKPF’s counter-terrorism capabilities.

Heightened Deterrence and Instant Response Capability

In July 2009, the Counter Terrorism Response Unit (CTRU) was formally established with the full policy support of the HKSAR Government and the financial blessing of the Legislative Council. Now four years in existence, CTRU mounts continuous high visibility CT patrols at sensitive locations throughout Hong Kong to augment the existing frontline deployment of regular beat officers. This unit visibly “hardens” potential targets by providing a highly trained, high profile and prepared Police presence at all times, seeking to both reassure the public and to discourage terrorists from contemplating an attack in Hong Kong.

Enhanced Infrastructure Protection

With a population of 7.07 million occupying a small territory of 1,104 square kilometers,[4] Hong Kong is one of the world’s most densely populated areas[5] and relies heavily on a series of critical infrastructures to keep itself vibrant and deliver essential services for its citizens. Damage to or destruction of these infrastructures would obviously be disruptive to life and commerce in Hong Kong.

Recognizing the limitations of what the Police can do alone, and the importance of rallying the support and commitment of private operators, the Critical Infrastructure Security Coordination Committee (CISCC) was formed within the HKPF in December 2011 to promote and enact private-public collaboration in the protection of critical infrastructures. The CISCC has identified and divided all CI facilities in Hong Kong into various sectors and launched a comprehensive engagement program seeking to involve all the related stakeholders in each sector, including individual operators, the sector’s representatives, and related government departments and agencies in order to achieve an all-inclusive and well-informed security protection system. Regular meetings with individual critical infrastructure operators are held and detailed security surveys of the facilities are offered, followed by practical security advice, which are given to effectively boost the resilience of each facility in the face of terrorist threats. Also, as part of the comprehensive protection plan, local Police and CTRU are involved in devising more effective patrolling systems and response plans towards any incident which may occur at each critical infrastructure.

Preparing for Increased Cyber-Terrorism

In gearing up to face the imminent challenges posed by cyber-terrorism on the digital frontier of the increasingly sophisticated, interlocking modern society, the HKPF established a Cyber Security Center in December 2012 to monitor any possible cyber attacks in Hong Kong and render effective counter measures and investigation capabilities if needed. The Centre works in close cooperation with the information technology sector in Hong Kong and constantly conducts reviews and research to ensure that its staff is fully equipped to respond to the latest threats from the cyber world.

Through the addition of new units in the past few years, the HKPF is in a much better position to prevent, prepare for, and, if necessary, respond to terrorist threats. However, as modern terrorism recognizes no boundary and is constantly evolving, collective efforts, continuous collaboration and mutual assistance amongst law enforcement agencies (LEAs) throughout the world are vital. The HKPF has maintained close partnership with Interpol and other LEAs globally to exchange information and intelligence in a timely and effective manner. This intelligence side of CT policing is most critical in support of effective CT operational deployment.

Internal Review Practices

Whilst Hong Kong is fortunate not to have been subject to a terrorist attack itself, the HKPF still endeavors to identify good practices and learn lessons through regular exercises of different scales so that improvements can be made and mistakes can be avoided in the future. At regular intervals, a Force level CT exercise based on different, evolving scenarios is arranged to ensure different aspects of the Force’s CT strategy are suitably tested and a wide range of different units are examined for their operational readiness and interoperability. Detailed after action reviews will be conducted to ensure all the learning points are rightly identified and any corresponding changes, either within or amongst the units concerned, will be made in a timely manner. Similar exercises at smaller scales are conducted at greater frequency at formation and unit levels, including some with outside collaboration, such as the involvement of the Mass Transit Railway Corporation[6] and the Airport Authority Hong Kong.[7]

Policy Suggestions

Successful counter-terrorism must be a concerted effort by every component in a society. The HKPF relies on the policy coordination and support from the HKSAR Government’s Security Bureau, as well as the commitment and support of private sector stakeholders externally in the Hong Kong community, supplemented by international collaborations with other LEAs. Through constant vigilance and extensive groundwork described in the preceding paragraphs, the HKPF works to continuously alert but not alarm the Hong Kong public on the threat of terrorism. This is never an easy task and requires the best capabilities and professionalism of every man and woman serving in the HKPF.

A number of policy measures seem appropriate as the HKPF continues to enhance its CT capabilities. Firstly, the HKPF should continue to promote and internalize the importance of CT as every officer’s responsibility. It requires regular briefings and exercises for both highly trained specialists in the specialized units and the frontline beat officers who are likely to be the first responders in order to make officers aware of the latest terrorist trends and best-practice counter measures. This is a time-consuming and ongoing process, but is highly effective. Secondly, with the new units mentioned now fully operational, more frequent and rigorous exercises of all scales should be pursued. It would be beneficial to expedite the units’ integration into the HKPF’s overall CT framework and to create a synergy effect enabling Hong Kong to better face the threat of modern terrorism.


[1]   As part of the PRC, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign affairs and defense matters, guaranteed by the Basic Law. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) was adopted on April 4, 1990 by the Seventh National People's Congress of the People’s Republic of China. It is the mini constitution tailor-made for Hong Kong after its reunification with China on July 1, 1997. It upholds the principle of “One Country, Two Systems” and the extension of the previous capitalist system and life-style in Hong Kong for another 50 years. See http://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/facts/index.html, accessed August 7, 2013.

[2] Established in May 1844, Hong Kong Police Force is the largest disciplined force in Hong Kong with the establishment of 28,392 sworn Police officers, augmented by 4,695 civilian staff and 4,500 auxiliary Police officers as at December 31, 2012. See  http://www.police.gov.hk/info/doc/2012_police_in_fig.pdf, accessed August 8, 2013.

[3] The vision of the Hong Kong Police Force is “That Hong Kong remains one of the safest and most stable societies in the world.” See “Force Vision, Common Purpose and Values,” http://www.police.gov.hk/ppp_en/01_about_us/vm.html, accessed June 8, 2013.

[4] “Hong Kong: The Facts,” Hong Kong Year Book 2011. See http://www.yearbook.gov.hk/2011/en/pdf/Facts.pdf, accessed April 8, 2013.

[5]The average land population density in Hong Kong as at mid-2010 was 6,540 persons per square kilometer whilst in the most densely populated district of Kwun Tong, the figure was 54,530 persons per square kilometer. See Hong Kong: The Facts, “Population,” January 2012, http://www.gov.hk/en/about/abouthk/factsheets/docs/population.pdf, accessed June 6, 2013.

[6]The Mass Transit Railway Corporation carries an average of 5.1 million passengers every weekday across all of its services, including operations outside Hong Kong. See “Corporate Profile,” http://www.mtr.com.hk/eng/overview/profile_index.html, accessed June 5, 2013. This number is similar to New York’s average subway ridership. See Metropolitan Transportation Authority, “Subway and Bus Ridership,” http://www.mta.info/nyct/facts/ridership/, accessed July 9, 2013.

[7] Established in 1995, the Airport Authority Hong Kong is a statutory body responsible for the operation and development of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport which in 2012 alone hosted 56.5 million passengers and 4.03 million tones of air cargo. See “Introduction,” http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/business/airport-authority/introduction.html, and “Welcome to the Hong Kong International Airport”, http://www.hongkongairport.com/eng/business/about-the-airport/welcome.html, accessed June 5, 2013. Chek Lap Kok Airport was ranked as the world’s busiest cargo airport by volume and 10th busiest passenger airport in 2011 by the Airports Council International; see “Cargo Volume,” http://www.aci.aero/Data-Centre/Annual-Traffic-Data/Cargo/2011-final, and “Passenger Traffic,” http://www.aci.aero/Data-Centre/Annual-Traffic-Data/Passengers/2011-final, accessed July 9, 2013.