Future imperfect

Predicting the future is often seen to be a mug’s game. There are just too many imponderables as to be clear what the trajectory of travel will be. Uncertainty compounds uncertainty with an inevitable result. But is this really the case? Can the inevitable uncertainties be understood sufficiently well to enable a reasonable guess at how things will evolve?

Predicting the future can be broken down into two major elements. The first of these are those elements that are obvious. The second are those variables that are chaotically unpredictable. These can cause catastrophic change in the international security landscape.

This article will focus on the predictable elements. One of these is climate change. Irrespective of the core issue as to whether it is an anthropological signal that is being seen, or the current round of warming is a part of the earth’s natural cycle, it is clear that something is going on.

Predicting Chaos

Unpredictable weather patterns are clear from day-to-day variations that occur across the world. This is unlikely to change in the coming century. The only issue is the scale of change to the weather patterns and their impact upon the population. Sea level change, unstable and extreme weather patterns are simply a fact of life that we need to adapt to from now on.

The other obvious certainty is that the world is also going through a period of insecurity and instability from a political viewpoint. The days of relative certainty that surrounded the Cold War were initially replaced with a temporary unipolar world where the US was the only superpower to one where a resurgent Russia and an emerging China are changing the political dynamic. With India likely also to become a world power in the foreseeable future, this just adds to the uncertainty. Parallels, albeit on a larger scale, with the emergence of a series of superpower blocs ahead of World War One are difficult to avoid. This means that the risk of war in the 21st century is increased.

In this competitive space terrorists thrive in the remote deserts of the Sahel, Iraq and Syria, the forests of Nigeria and the vast tracts of the savannah in Somalia and the arid areas of Yemen. While they survive their ideology still attracts the vulnerable. Those who are readily persuaded by a toxic mix of interpretations of religious texts that vast numbers of daily adherents to those texts simply do not recognise.

When those that believe in these extreme interpretations of those texts take violent action, such as in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday this year, there is always a back-lash. The attacks on the Muslim communities in Christchurch in New Zealand will have surprised many. Its links to the actions of Anders Breivik in Norway are also obvious and spread a pernicious view of the world at odds with the liberal values many in the west believe are based on the fundamental idea of human rights.

It is not hard to predict that this cycle of violence and reaction will continue and get ever-more extreme. In such a situation actions to prevent terrorists gaining access to technologies that could cause many people to die or be injured simply have to continue. While much of this goes on away from the public eye, it is a vital component of the kind of disruption that must occur.

The only issue is when that disruption fails to achieve results. This is compounded when the public or our political leaders take their eye off the threat and become complacent. In the world of predicting the future one thing is certain: terrorism as our generation has come to understand it simply does not go away. It festers and morphs into ever more extreme forms through the upwardly and outwardly spiralling action-reaction cycle of violence. Some of which is fuelled by social media and the ubiquitous nature of the Internet.


“It is not hard to predict that this cycle of violence and reaction will continue and get ever-more extreme”

Action-Reaction Cycle

One of the great ironies of the current situation is the way that terrorists use technologies developed in the west against us. The use of social media enables terrorists to use the technology to facilitate their command and control of situations. In Paris the leader of the attacks, who initially escaped, used simple text messages to initiate each phase of the operation.

Today social media applications, such as Telegram, are used to spread the narrative of the extremists and to enable the radicalisation of individuals or groups of people expressing a desire to take action. Looking to the future this is unlikely to change. Recent efforts to force social media companies to create back-doors into their applications that allow the security services to understand what is going on have already been countered by groups such as Da’esh.

They have already concluded that their attack planning and radicalisation networks will at some point in the near future become vulnerable to penetration by the security services. Whereas in history this cycle of advantage being countered by a move to remove that advantage (the so-called action-reaction cycle) it is easier in the 21st century to move on and maintain that advantage. For Da’esh, if the social media companies are going to be forced, through legislation, to release their encryption keys, then the answer is obvious. Own them yourself.

This changes the dynamic. It makes the security services have to look to cyberspace to try and obtain the keys wherever they may be stored. If they are distributed and controlled by people who have a good understanding of the possible vulnerabilities of networks then the task of the security services becomes that much harder.

All this proves is that the current debate on the release of the encryption keys from established social media sites, such as Facebook, is simply the start of another action-reaction cycle. The difference is that this has been the subject of such debate in the international media that it is easy for the terrorists to start their adaptation even before the vulnerability they have using social media applications has been formally closed. The horse has literally moved into another stable before the gate was closed.

The joined-up world of the Internet is the great enabler of this understanding. While terrorists may be finding the physical spaces in which they operate more difficult, the Internet provides connectivity that enables them to be confident they can carry on.

Of all the most likely evolutions of the future, one thing is clear: those who use the Internet to spread ideologies of hatred are going to continue to seek new ways of creating mass murder. If their ranks are depleted over time they will simply try and gain leverage over new technologies to enable them to conduct the kind of spectacular attack that will inevitably draw more recruits.

This is a process that the action-reaction cycle of violence between communities enables. When the extreme right wing (ERW) take action it simply makes the action-reaction cycle become even more dangerous, particularly when extreme weapon technologies proliferate into the hands of evil people.

Anyone who cares to dismiss such arguments simply needs to look at the ways in which terrorists now use drone technologies to deliver attacks. Whereas in the recent past terrorists have had a limited ability to conduct attacks at reach, they can now hit targets and kill people several hundreds of kilometres away from their sanctuaries.


“Those who use the Internet to spread ideologies of hatred are going to continue to seek new ways of creating mass murder”

Implications for Emergency Responders

The inevitable question of all of this is “so what?” What does this mean for the Fire and Rescue Service in the future? Arguably the most successful organisation at preventing threats to society through its fire awareness programmes, what happens to the Fire and Rescue Service is important. It is more that slightly obvious that the cutbacks that have occurred to the Fire and Rescue Service over the last few years have gone too far.

Given the scale of the changes that are going to happen in the coming years, a new strategic approach to looking at the future needs to be developed that justifies in the eyes of the mandarins in the Treasury more investment in national resilience. Much is said and written over our need to be resilient in cyberspace. But what of our need to protect our national interests showing a similar focus on our resilience in the physical arena?

If people can die on London Bridge due to a lack of appropriate protection, a few weeks after people have died on Westminster Bridge through a vehicle born attack, it is clear there are gaps in the thinking of those who make decisions on where such investments should be made. A point illustrated by the response of the senior police officer who told the inquest into the death of those that died during the London Bridge attack that it was low down on the priority list.

While some may argue that predicting the future is a fool’s game, it is possible to argue that some aspects of the future are clear. It is inevitable that the twin threat of climate change and the increased risks that emerge for proliferation of weapons and technology that act as a catalyst for ever-more extreme acts of terror. This will lead to the kind of action-reaction cycle that ends up fuelling disunity and discord in society. It will test national resilience. This is an argument that needs to be at the heart of the justification for greater, not lesser, investment in our emergency services. They are the people in the front line when our national resilience is tested, as it will be in the future. It is our duty to give them the levels of training and equipment they need to deal with those challenges however and wherever they occur.

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