Countering Terrorism: Why the Time is Right to Pass the Protect Duty

Five years on: members of the public gather at the Glade of Light memorial on 22 May 2022 to commemorate the victims of the 2017 terrorist attack at Manchester Arena. Jon Super / Alamy

On 22 May 2017, Figen Murray’s life changed forever when her son, Martyn Hett, was one of 22 people murdered in the Manchester Arena suicide bombing. Even as fear of terrorism fades in the West, she believes that now is not the time to abandon efforts to implement ‘Martyn’s Law’ to keep the public more secure.

People often say to me that the chances of being caught up in a terrorist attack are very rare. I tried very hard to believe it, but earlier this year I returned from the UN Global Congress for Victims of Terrorism held in New York. I met Soad from Morocco, who lost her son and husband in a terrorist attack in Casablanca; Fatima from Pakistan, who lost her husband and son in a targeted attack; Maysoon, who lost her son in the Christchurch massacre in New Zealand; Julie and Mark from Brisbane, who lost their daughter in the London Borough Market attack; Ashraf from Amman, who on his wedding day lost his dad, both his in-laws and 24 further relatives; Max from the Netherlands, who lost both his legs during an attack at a hotel in Jakarta; and dozens of other individuals whose lives have been altered forever. We are not just the tip of the iceberg; we are probably only a molecule of it. Thousands of people are listed in the Global Terrorism Database at Maryland University near Boston, US as either deceased or injured during terrorist attacks all over the world, most of them not even making the news. Thousands of families have the yearly agony of facing yet another heart-breaking anniversary of the death of their loved one.

I often wonder how these figures would be different if security was heightened in places where people congregate in larger numbers. Increased security does not have to mean barricades and guns. Instead, good protective security can be achieved through proportionate measures to protect people, information and physical assets in public spaces, and legislation to back these up. This would mean that should a terrorist attack happen, staff would know what to do to keep themselves, colleagues and customers safe from harm.

Having these types of measures in place is still important, even though terrorism is no longer seen as the top security threat to the UK. While the terrorism threat in the West has declined substantially in recent years – the latest Global Terrorism Index reveals attacks fell by 68%global terrorist attacks actually increased to 5,226 last year. In many parts of the world, violence linked to terrorism continues unabated, though often unreported. Lives are silently lost, the names of the many people hardly remembered – collateral damage of an unspoken war. Though much of this violence is often linked to local conflicts, the threat from international terrorism – including the potential for groups such as Islamic State to use these environments as safe havens from which to plot attacks against the West – has by no means disappeared.

Good protective security can be achieved through proportionate measures to protect people, information and physical assets in public spaces, and legislation to back these up

In the UK, the threat – though greatly decreased – will not disappear, even if it looks more fragmented and, perhaps, less ideological. Lord Toby Harris has written extensively about the need for the general population to become more resilient and self-sufficient in case of a crisis. Terrorism is one such crisis, and educating the public seems a logical step forward.

One of the ways this can be done is by strengthening counterterrorism measures to ‘Deter, Detect, Delay’ – introducing protective security and monitoring measures and management practices to deter would-be terrorists, detect attackers at an early stage, and delay attacks where assailants manage to breach the physical security measures for long enough to allow time for a security response. In recent years, governments across the world have introduced legislation and published guidance material on how to mitigate the impact of terrorism on crowded public places or publicly accessible locations. In the UK, the campaign for a Protect Duty has been ongoing for over four years. The implementation of the legislation is still pending, despite clear recommendations from the Chairman of the Manchester Arena Inquiry in his Volume One report that the duty be implemented without delay, as a standalone law with stringent measures for non-compliance.

It is important, however, not to ignore the existence of concerns. Protective responses need to be sufficiently proportionate, and the potential for unintended consequences such as the over-securitisation of spaces, visible measures that do not blend into the environment, and unintended vulnerability where protective security has not been considered holistically needs to be considered. The evidence base for protective security programmes is also shallow. In the UK, flagship protective security projects, such as Project Griffin, Project Argus and Project Servator, are insufficiently evaluated. Furthermore, analysis has revealed that a key barrier to protective security is that the wider public and private sectors have little perception of the threat – a challenge that is likely complicated by the changing terrorism landscape that is dominated by increasingly fragmented ideologies and self-initiated terrorism.

The nature of violence related to these movements – low-impact and disjointed – has, however, lowered the barriers to terrorist attacks, which raises the importance of protective security. The Protect Duty, also known as Martyn’s Law after one of the victims of the Manchester Arena attack, does not propose a heavily securitised response to the problem. The legislation asks for people to undergo the 45-minute free-of-charge ACT e-Learning training – a national counterterrorism awareness initiative for businesses, produced by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office – in order to be better informed about the dangers of terrorism. It requires that risk assessments be carried out, and that any risks identified during this process be mitigated. It asks for venues to have a terrorism action plan, and for staff to be familiar with it. And finally, it asks for local authorities to be ready in case of an attack. Coventry University and RUSI, with funding from the Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST), are also creating a framework for evaluating protective security interventions in public locations, with the aim to increase the evidence base for the Protect Duty.

All eyes are now on the prime minister to take the necessary action to progress the Protect Duty

The ProtectUK App is already readily available to the general public. It is free, and it contains within it the ACT e-learning package that every person in the UK can access, free of charge. A more educated public is an empowered public. For example, research on airport users reveals that passengers’ perception of safety was positively related to their ability to report suspicious behaviour and knowing whom to contact if they encountered something concerning.

The pressure on the government to pass the Duty has increased since former and current police chiefs wrote to the prime minister in mid-November. This was quickly followed by a letter signed by no fewer than seven former home secretaries (both Conservative and Labour), urging the prime minister to use his powers and intervene directly to implement the legislation without further delay. The message was clear: do something before another attack happens.

All eyes are now on the prime minister to take the necessary action to progress the Protect Duty. Then, the task of bedding in the new legislation can begin. The legislation will not stop all terrorist attacks, and it is impossible to reduce the risk to zero. However, the law would send out a strong message that we will make it much harder for terrorists to attack the fabric of our democracy and our way of life.

Emily Winterbotham also contributed to this article.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Figen Murray

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