Worryingly, a quick Internet search appears to shows that, ‘Terrorism stops here’ is not part of any security organisation’s motto, objectives or mission statement, anywhere.  Meanwhile our Ministry of Defence appears to be trying to recruit soldiers to ‘make a difference’ and police rebranding seems to focus on the vague term ‘safe’.  Then there are ‘Prevent’ and ‘CONTEST’ which are the Government‘s strategies (or programmes) for countering terrorism – lots of somewhat confusing reading there and names that may be memorable but aren’t that decisive.  Are fuzzy words really going to protect us?

Words are important. They are what we use to think, describe a subject and set a framework for ideas, objectives (and timetables), means of achieving goals, measuring results and discussions.  Vague or fuzzy words and waffle (to give apparent substance to pure wind) ultimately lead to poorer results.  Worse, they can encourage opposition or undermining of efforts.  And objectives ‘cast in stone’ can set efforts and resources off in the wrong direction or at least a suboptimum one.  Could we be going wrong then?  

Terrorist acts need three things in place to happen: Motivation (to bring death and destruction); Resources (to pull it off); and Opportunity (favourable circumstances). Remove one or more of any of these and the act cannot occur.  So obviously we need to do something about these such as by:

(a) Destroying motivation (of terrorists and their supporters);

(b) Winning hearts and minds (of potential terrorists and their target populations);

(c) Taking down terrorist capabilities (and their support networks);

(d) Occupying territory (and ‘space’ where terrorists and supporters operate and denial of use to them); and

(e) Neutralising or converting populations that enable terrorists and active supporters to hide and conduct their activities.  

Terrorism does not occur in isolation. Terrorists, through their acts, are working towards achieving their overall objectives. To achieve these objectives requires dominating territory and populations, and isolating them from the security forces and uncontaminated or unintimidated populations.  Terrorists may also cooperate with other troublemakers or criminals to achieve bigger results and conversely these others may provide some forms of cover or protection.

In addressing the problem of any form of terrorism, there obviously needs to be an overall strategy and objectives to measure effectiveness against. There are four options leading to subsequent activities and allocation of resources:

(1) Elimination (remove problem or its causes completely);

(2) Containment (localise and control potential terrorism);

(3) Damage limitation (during an incident) and recovery afterwards;

(4) Some (optimum) combination of the previous options.  

Damage limitation is the most visually exciting and shows politicians ‘in command’ of the emergency.   Containment is costly on resources and can never be 100% effective; obviously it gets more draconian and less effective as numbers of potential hostiles and targets (for Containment) increases.   Elimination even when not 100% effective reduces the downstream tasks of Containment and the resources required, and thereby improves overall results.

To get the best overall result (to stop terrorism), follow through of positive actions needs planning and coordination between the different activities and security organisations. This is instead of piecemeal or knee-jerk reactions.  There also need to be identification of any potentially adverse consequential effects arising from positive actions. And suitable mitigation measures to be in place.  After all, terrorists, their supporters and other troublemakers will try to exploit any weaknesses present.  So where do we stand at present?

For want of better words, we are facing a growing urban insurgency and perhaps others too.  That is how insurgencies (violent revolts against the existing order) start; small, isolated, uncoordinated attacks with growing frequency as recruits and results increase.   And it is an asymmetric conflict, the one side (us) has formidable capabilities and resources, but lacks the commitment (or cultural and legal flexibility) to use them, whilst the other numerically inferior side (though reportedly potentially 23000 or more in this country) has barbarity limited only by its current capabilities.  This insurgency appears to be fuelled by:

(1) ideology/religion originating within Islam, (using an interpretation of its theology and its potentially supportive infrastructure);

(2) frequent previous petty criminality; and

(3) frequent long term (mind-changing) drug abuse (often heavy cannabis use).

The aim seems to be capitulation by the target population (assumed to be the whole country) and imposition of a violent theocracy incompatible with western traditions.

Currently our Government’s overall strategy (to counter terrorism) is apparently piecemeal, passive or reactive uncoordinated Containment and Damage Limitation when terrorist atrocities occur.  Containment isn’t working as the problem of terrorism, Watch lists and active plots etc., is visibly increasing.  Apparently missing is aggressive, proactive Elimination.  However, it is easy to mistake dramatic actions (for example, prosecuting ‘hate preachers’, imprisonment or foiling plots) for Elimination. In reality they are only (temporary) Containment measures. These are susceptible to downsides unless accompanied by other (Elimination) activities; such as conversion of hostile targets to anti-terrorism activities.  Current Recovery after incidents is poor – shattered lives do not recover easily, if at all.  Some appeasement of terrorist sympathisers, active supporters or other associated potential troublemakers may also be happening.  

The Government’s emergency crisis committee has a macho sounding and pointless acronym, COBRA (Cabinet Office Briefing Room A).  Perhaps they could usefully ponder the wisdom of sharing the habitat of nature’s deadly, agile, intelligent, inquisitive namesake and what precautions are then necessary to stay alive. There may be some lessons to be learnt, such as taking the danger seriously all the time. The snake that bites is the one you don’t see. Mortal danger and pure terror is disturbing a spitting cobra under your bed or waking up with an Egyptian (banded) cobra coiled up on your feet in your sleeping bag.  

We need a major rethink of overall strategy (to defeat terrorism) to prioritise Elimination to a speedy timetable and to mitigate any potential downsides.  The rethink should be accompanied by appropriate terminology. Within the strategic framework there could be priorities to achieve greatest impact first and a hierarchy for the use of proposed methods based on their effectiveness.  To work, the overall strategy and associated activities require determined, thorough and coordinated implementation; there may also be a need for increased legal and cultural flexibility.  Accompanying this strategy should be a programme or initiative to ensure everyone understands the need for the actions being taken, becomes actively supportive in many ways, and acquires some relevant skills. This approach has the potential to save the most costs and, more importantly, innocent lives. Then we can all truly say ‘Terrorism Stops Here!’


Photo by Matt Hecht

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