Police in Greater Manchester have joined forces with other agencies to carry out a simulated terror attack to test the emergency response to a major terrorist incident.
A dramatic terrorism training exercise saw a ‘suicide bomber’ detonate a device at the Trafford Centre - killing and injuring dozens of ‘shoppers’.
Some 800 volunteers helped make the mock attack as real as possible to test how the emergency services would cope in the event of an actual attack.
The drill started at midnight at the entrance to The Orient food court when a man dressed all in black walked in and shouted at the crowd.
Moments, later an explosion rocked the food hall and volunteers - wearing ear defenders and safety glasses - dropped to the floor.
Many were made up to look as if they had horrific injuries and others screamed out as if in pain.
Smoke filled the entrance to the foodcourt and some of the volunteers ran from restaurants, as if they were trying to dash to safety.
The sound of gunfire could be heard ringing out through the foodcourt as the volunteers screamed for help.
Moments later a masked gunman appeared near at the foot of the steps at the entrance to The Orient, firing a number of shots.
Earlier, the volunteers had gone through a safety briefing and had been reassured that no live rounds would be used.
After observing the initial ‘attack’, the media were asked move outside to witness the arrival, about five minutes later, of armed police.
Two armed police officers - carrying what appeared to be rifles - moved cautiously towards the entrance, weapons pointing out in front of them.
One covered the other as the pair went inside the food court, ignoring the ‘injured’ as they passed them.
It was at that point the media were asked to leave although the Trafford Centre part of the exercise was due to continue until 6am.
The shopping city will be open as usual on Tuesday, although the training exercise is set to continues unseen at un-named locations until Wednesday when it will finish in Merseyside.
The test, five months in the planning, is the latest in a series which have taken place across the country with the chances of a real terror strike said to be ‘likely’.
Greater Manchester Police, the North West Counter Terrorism Unit and the North West Ambulance Service were all being tested as part of the exercise, with no personnel being told precisely how the ‘attack’ would unfold.
It is understood the SAS were also involved in the operation.
Residents living nearby had been warned they could hear loud bangs and see emergency crews taking part in the test.
Following deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels, the terrorist threat remains ‘severe’ according to MI5.
However, counter terrorism police say there is no specific threat against Trafford Centre, which has been chosen because the exercise can take place away from the public at that time of night.
Similar operations have taken place around the country including one involving 1,000 police officers in London last year.
None of the emergency services taking part in the exercise nor the volunteers have been told precise details of the scenario which will unfold, although they know it will involve some sort of terrorism attack.
Any suspicious activity or behaviour can be reported to police via the confidential Anti-Terrorist Hotline by calling 0800 789 321. Extremist or terrorist content online can be reported at www.gov.uk/report-terrorism
Speaking after concerns were raised about the counter-terrorism operation at the Trafford Centre, Greater Manchester’s Mayor and Police & Crime Commissioner Tony Lloyd said:
“This was a very good exercise in preparing for a situation we never want to see, but must be ready for. The public expects the highest standard of training where all of our emergency services locally work together effectively with those who 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 ‘Allah 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.”