The latest UK Government assessments of the threats we face on a day-to-day basis focuses, perhaps understandably given events in Salisbury, on Russia and terrorism from so-called Islamic State (IS). This underlines comments in the National Security Strategy that the United Kingdom does not expect to see the current threat (currently at severe) change in the next two years.
If that is the case, and why should it be doubted given the current situation, the United Kingdom will cross another significant milestone since the first publication of the threat level in August 2006. When it started at severe. In the time since the threat level was published the United Kingdom has spent seventy percent of its time at severe. Against a backdrop of the international security situation the United Kingdom’s threat assessment has become becalmed at one level.
In the next two years we will cross the next significant figure of seventy-five percent. Three quarters of the time since August 2006 the United Kingdom will have been at a threat level of one below critical; a position we rarely move to and one that we stay at for a few days before heading back to the relative obscurity of severe.
The problem with this is that severe has become a new normal. This induces an obvious frame of reference which fosters complacency. The recent arrest of a nineteen-year-old-man in East London on suspicion of preparing acts of terrorism merited a tiny column on page four of The Times over the Easter weekend.
What many years ago might have made it to the front page of many national news papers is consigned to a column full of other stories in the depths of a mainstream media title. This is not the only example where arrests relating to terrorism are being consigned to the metaphorical back pages.
Another example of such complacency is the public response to the Parsons Green attack. It is not difficult to remember people taking photographs of the bomb after it had deflagrated. Images of the platform attendant moving along telling people to get away from the threat are easily recalled. What on Earth do those people anxious to take a picture of the bomb think they are achieving?
More importantly how many people had seen the bucket on the train after it was placed there and failed to raise it to the authorities? Are people so caught up in the mobile phones and music not to look around? If the government, as it suggests, wants to harness the public in the fight against terrorism they need to persuade them of the need to pay attention to what is around them.
Opinion polls that suggest the public cannot recognise unusual behaviour if they see it should be a major cause for concern. But how to instil a sense of awareness in the public? Do we wait until the next time a celebrity announces on social media that shots have been fired on a London Underground station to start some kind of education?
That event saw people running for their lives along Oxford Street convinced London was under attack. Had that situation been a little bit different people could have died from crush injuries. What did the so-called celebrity think they were doing? A series of public information films providing good examples of real world behaviour would be helpful. But no doubt politically this is unacceptable as it would run the risk of being seen to marginalise communities already under pressure.
Are the public really prepared to risk their lives for a ‘like’ on social media? The image of an individual posting a picture against the back-drop of the drama unfolding on Westminster Bridge last year comes to mind. What did he think he was doing? Did he realise that by posting the picture he may well have been providing terrorist with an image that enabled them to conduct a second-phase attack directed at the emergency services?
Imagine the dilemma that would create for emergency responders knowing that people had so casually put themselves in harm’s way and brought an attack on their efforts to save lives? Would the much-criticised response to the Manchester arena bombing have been quite so vociferous if the public had consciously put themselves in such a situation?
Reports that people can be paid significant figures by the media for a really good picture hardly help. A terrorist attack is not the time to think about topping up a pension pot or planning a holiday. Its about being sensible.
Whilst members of the public rushing to help people that have been injured is an admirable thing, and one that increasingly happens, would people’s actions, driven by a desire for their self-elevation in social media circles, garner and equally sympathetic response?
The simple fact is that as the country moves forward there is likely to be a period, possibly short in duration, where terrorism no longer blights our streets. The level of disruption of Al Qaeda and IS has been so severe as a result of the military operations mounted against them that both organisations will take time to re-group.
During that time public complacency will grow, just as the threat appears to have disappeared. At that point, when the inevitable next attack occurs, how that complacency shows itself may well determine how many people live and how many die and suffer life-changing injuries. It is something that everyone has to be aware of irrespective of the political fall-out.
Being able to recognise unusual behaviour is something that is a duty we all owe to society. Those eighty people a month who pick up the phone and ring the confidential help line are doing their bit. The head of counter terrorism in the United Kingdom, Neil Basu, is in record as saying twenty percent of what is received has some operational impact on planning. By making the call those people are saving lives. That is a message any government communications programme should be able to get across.
Perhaps an adaptation of the run, hide and tell posters that focuses on the ‘tell’ element is in order. This would be a sensible first step in a programme designed to inculcate a simple message into the public minds. Terrorism is not a thing of the past. It might well be you next. Pay attention and keep an eye out. Your life may well depend on it.