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Terrorism and vigilance  

I have spent the weekend reading about the terrorist and similar events of the last fortnight: the attacks in Denmark and Norway, the conclusion of the major terror trial in Paris, the terrorism arrests in Cheshire and Hertfordshire (UK) and many other events around the world, writes Phil Trendall. Yet I detect that both the media and the general public see terrorism as something that is a long way down the agenda of things to be worried about.


Perhaps, with everything else that is going on, this should come as no surprise. After all, for the first time in a generation we are seeing two superpowers in a state of confrontation and an economy that invokes 1980s nostalgia. But terrorism has not gone away and it is possible to be vigilant against more than one risk at a time. Moreover, state agencies have a vital role in considering issues that are not dominating the headlines. I have no doubt that specialist agencies are doing exactly that, but what about other organisations?

This subject has come up in my conversations with police officers recently. These were not specialist officers and were mainly junior in rank. They were the type of officer who would be first on scene at an incident or a threat. Their approach to terrorism was, I am sorry to report, mildly dismissive. After all, the threat level in the UK was reduced in February, there has not been an attack in the UK for ‘ages’ and, crucially, there are plenty of other operational demands on their time.  

There was an acknowledgement that a marauding terrorist attack (MTA) was possible but it was thought likely that it will consist of a knife attack resulting in the early deployment of armed policing assets. The prospect of large scale bombings, CBRN or a 9/11 style attack was generally viewed as something historical or fantastical. I do not criticise the officers who chatted to me. It is senior officers who are paid to worry about what might be around the corner and their staff must believe that they will provide leadership.

The national threat level in the UK is SUBSTANTIAL, meaning that a terrorist attack is likely. There is a generality to this that allows individuals and organisations to sidestep the word ‘likely’. If I were to tell you that you are likely to lose your job this would cause immediate worry. However, if I said that someone in the UK is likely to lose their job then the low probability of that person being you provides great comfort. 

This issue was discussed at the Manchester Arena Inquiry. Individuals knew what the threat level was (SEVERE) but failed to make the connection with what they were doing on the night; the threat level was a distant backdrop and the chance of an attack where they were seemed remote. I have been to many briefings where the phrase ‘there is no specific terrorism intelligence relating to this event/person’ has been employed. The obvious point is, of course, that if there had been specific intelligence something would have been done about it. 

But a key message is that the absence of precise intelligence is the normal state of things before an attack. Looking backwards, there may have been intelligence failings, but attacks don’t happen when the authorities know they are being planned. When briefing frontline staff about the absence of specific intelligence, it is vital that this is not accompanied by a communal exhalation of relief.

All this this comes back to the question of vigilance and how is it maintained. There is no magic answer of course, but there are things that can be done. I should say here that most of the work on studying vigilance has been in connection with the psychological state of individuals rather than at the level of corporate vigilance and even when the latter has been considered it has failed to produce a simple route to readiness. I often quote a long serving police officer who, after attending one of my briefings, said: “You know, in 30 years no one has every told me to be less vigilant.”  

Yet there is then more to promoting vigilance than telling people to be vigilant. The irony is that the officer who  successfully pricked my pomposity during that briefing was always vigilant. He had seen too many terrorist outrages to be anything but watchful.

Blogs have word limits so I will move quickly to some suggestions about vigilance. I might expand this into something more structured later, but I am equally interested in hearing the views of others on how they maintain a vigilant organisation:

  • Vigilance is the product of organisational culture. Many of the lessons and techniques of cultural change are relevant;
  • An organisation is vigilant if its leaders are. This is a subject that demands the zeal of those who are paid the most. There needs to be immediacy and urgency in the process of ensuring corporate awareness of the threat and maintenance of a readiness to respond. A simple question that senior executives and officers need to ask is: “iI it happens today, are we as ready as we should be?” If senior people don’t take part in exercises, if they never examine counterterrorism plans or challenge their staff on the subject then nobody can be surprised if vigilance drops. Equally, senior people must themselves be vigilant. They must display the behaviours that they wish to see in others (see previous point);
  • It is tempting to prepare for the last attack, but terrorism comes in many forms and is a long game played over generations. Staff cannot be allowed to adopt a year zero (‘that was before my time…’) approach. Vigilant organisations are flexible and make the most of a carefully nurtured corporate memory. I have always been impressed by London Transport’s approach to counterterrorism. As one of its security specialists put it: “We have been attacked in virtually every decade since the 1870s, we have no excuse not to be ready.”
  • Training and exercising are vital and must be delivered in a way that encourages a flexible awareness of what could happen. Staff must be able to see themselves confronting, or better still, preventing, an attack. Training or exercises that focus on a single methodology may have great value, but could also serve to impair vigilance against other methods; 
  • Threat levels need explaining. Staff must feel comfortable with what they mean in the context of where they operate. People buy lottery tickets despite knowing that the chances of winning are tiny; the hope of winning is a useful tool to aid understanding that an attack could happen where they work. The old lottery slogan, ‘It could be you’, applies equally to the world of terrorist attacks;
  • Cases studies encourage vigilance. The real stories of individuals are relatable, particularly when coupled with simple instructions about what people should do when they are ‘unhappy’ with something. Here, a supportive reporting culture is vital. There are some very good products out there (including those from the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) that can be used by in-house teams;
  • There is value in repetition. The wallpaper effect is a problem,  but repetition assists in embedding key messages. The British Transport Police may have seriously damaged the English language with its ‘See it, say it, sorted’ campaign, but there are few commuters who will have missed it; and
  • Police forces and others state sector organisations exist to protect the public, and public expectations are high. Such bodies are funded and staffed for this key function. Failures of vigilance (as opposed to other failures) will always go unforgiven. For the emergency services in particular there must be a clear distinction between being shocked when an attack occurs and being surprised. How can professionals be surprised when the threat level tells them to expect an attack? 

Let’s start a debate about how best organisations can maintain vigilance.  

Images: C Design Studio | Adobe Stock

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