Central Oxford shut down for several hours on Thursday after a suspicious package was discovered outside the Armed Forces Careers Office on St Giles’.
Counter terrorism analysis revealed that the package was one of seven reported “basic, but viable” explosive devices delivered to recruitment offices across the South of England this week. Speaking on Thursday night, a Downing Street spokesperson stated that the devices bore “the hallmarks of Northern Ireland related terrorism”.
A St Giles’ Post Office worker told Cherwell that the package in Oxford was immediately treated with suspicion “because the person it was addressed to did not seem to exist”.
Several buildings, local businesses, and roads were closed off and evacuated during the incident. Traffic ground to a stand-still on St Giles’ for much of the afternoon, and pedestrians were prevented from collecting their vehicles or passing through the scene.
Samuel Marks, a classicist at St Benet’s, told Cherwell he first noticed a single police car moving up and down the road outside college at approximately 10.30am.
“Then one of the Army Reserve guys came out and seemed to be sort of gesticulating about a small package, which I guess must have been the cause of the problem,” he said. “Then things just sort of escalated.”
Approximately two hours later, police ordered Marks and his fellow St Benet’s students to evacuate the college. One St Benet’s staff member reported that the students “left lunch hot on their plates”.
“I thought the bank was being robbed or something like that,” commented Josh Dixon, a theology student also at the college.
“We were in the hall most of the morning. Slowly they extended the perimeter, and said ‘You need to come out now’ just after lunch.”
A series of police cordons eventually closed off St Giles’ from Beaumont Street to several hundred metres up Woodstock Road and Banbury Road. Only fire engines, police cars, an ambulance and a Royal Logistics Corps Bomb Disposal van were allowed through the cordon. Witnesses also reported seeing a police helicopter hovering over the scene.
Such central closures significantly disrupted local and student life for the duration of the incident, which was approximately four hours.
One student tweeted that they were unable to access the Language Centre on Woodstock Road, which remained open throughout the crisis. Others attempting to walk home via Little Clarendon Street were turned away by police. Several local residents had to take alternate routes home after the extending police cordon cut them off from their cars and bicycles.
One woman who travelled into central Oxford to shop for groceries told Cherwell she was forced to leave her car parked less than 100 feet from the Recruitment Office and take the bus home to Kennington.
“What a day!” she commented, adding that stranded residents “couldn’t even get down Abingdon Road as that’s flooded.”
At approximately 2pm, the gathered crowd of onlookers witnessed body-armour-clad counter terrorism forces unloading a small remote-controlled robot from the bomb disposal van.
Soon after, police lifted cordons, restarted traffic, and allowed military staff to return to the Careers Office by 3.30pm.
One Lincoln postgraduate living on the end of Little Clarendon Street which was not evacuated witnessed some of the scenes from her kitchen window. “Although the idea of what was happening was quite frightening, on the ground things were relatively calm,” she told Cherwell.
One student who had been in the library prior to the evacuation called the incident “the most exciting thing to have happened to St Benet’s Hall in the history of St Benet’s Hall”.
The South East Counter Terrorism Unit reported that suspicious packages were discovered on the same day at recruitment centres in Slough, Brighton, and Canterbury, a day after similar incidents at Kent, Berkshire, and Hampshire armed forces offices.
After counter terrorism analysis, Chris Buckler, the BBC’s Ireland correspondent, described the packages as containing “small devices capable of causing burns or injury”, but added that “none was judged to be potentially life-threatening”.
Responding to the national scale of the threat, David Cameron chaired an emergency COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room) meeting on Thursday afternoon after the “crude” explosive devices had been disarmed. These meetings are the main form of crisis response by the government.
Shortly after, a Downing Street spokesperson stated, “Guidance has been issued to staff at all military establishments and Royal Mail asking them to be extra vigilant and to look out for any suspect packages and the screening procedures for mail to Armed Forces Careers offices is being reviewed.”