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Shock and Awe: Coming Ready or Not

Article, 13 November 2007
Domestic Security, Terrorism
Is the UK prepared for a catastrophic attack?

It is not only Saddam Hussein's regime that faces the prospect of shock and awe tactics: Al Qa'ida already demonstrated their ability to deliver such an experience, most memorably on 11 September 2001. The news that the Government has postponed a major exercise to test the ability of the emergency services and supporting agencies to respond to catastrophic terrorism is regrettable but understandable. Many of the necessary resources have been allocated to other duties, the necessary equipment or training is lacking and, in the case of some specialist military units, manpower has been deployed to the Gulf. At the time of writing, with the Second Gulf War nearing an end, there is an accompanying increased (at least theoretically) probability of a catastrophic terrorist attack and the question frequently being asked is: how prepared are we?

Since the 1990 prelude to the first Gulf War, concerns have been raised as to whether key agencies were sufficiently well resourced and prepared to deal with the threat of chemical, biological or nuclear terrorism. These concerns were then magnified in the aftermath of the Aum Shinrikyo Sarin nerve agent attack in Tokyo in 1995. Siren voices continued to warn of the increasing probability of an attack by terrorists using weapons of mass destruction, a warning galvanised by President Bill Clinton's pronouncement in the late 1990s of 'not if, but when'.

The catastrophic attacks of 9/11 did not of course involve weapons of mass destruction but weapons, in the form of aircraft, of catastrophic effect. No nation had ever before been subjected to an individual terrorist attack that had resulted in so many casualties as was experienced by the United States in New York. Few cities in the United States or elsewhere in the world would be better equipped to confront this devastating attack. They had well resourced and staffed Fire and Police Departments that, despite suffering a high level of attrition to their personnel, were able to continue to actively participate in the consequence response. They had in Mayor Giuliani, by a positive quirk of timing in an otherwise negative scenario, a peerless leader of the moment and after the initial shock a determined and resilient population.

In the United Kingdom in the days after the Al Qa'ida attacks much was made of our experience and ability in confronting Irish Republican terrorism over a period of three decades. It was as true then as it remains today that the UK is without equal in confronting the terrorism that was waged by the Provisional Irish Republican Army. But where there might have been recognition that this experience would provide a sound basis on which to build a response to this new uncompromising threat, in many quarters the assumption appeared to be that the United Kingdom had everything under control. This demonstrated a failure to recognize the significant difference between PIRA and Al Qa'ida objectives.

Some of the operational differences are obvious - the lack of a PIRA suicide culture, for example. But other differences are more subtle. In the first decade of their bombing campaign, PIRA were entirely indiscriminate in target selection. In the 1980s and 1990s they tended to target the security forces, the judiciary and politicians. That is not to suggest that members of the general public were not victims nor that PIRA were motivated by a sense of decency, the reason was the knowledge that 'innocent' victims were likely to alienate the source of their major support in the US. The coded warning too, although at times ambiguous or late nevertheless on other occasions allowed timely evacuation or bomb disposal action thereby preventing physical casualties. Al Qa'ida on the other hand seek to maximize the level of destruction neither to establish nor enhance a negotiating position but for its own sake, employing all possible means.

The response to the PIRA threat developed over a thirty-year period to become highly effective. In the late 1960s, PIRA improvised weaponry was relatively simple as indeed was the security force response to the threat it posed. The passage of time saw the development of increasingly effective terrorist weapon systems paralleled by an impressive police, intelligence agency and military response. The resources deployed, when attacks had not been prevented or bomb disposal action was unsuccessful, to address the consequence of an attack resulted in a slick and well-practised response. Most importantly the business community and the public at large were fully engaged in understanding the threat, in familiarity with their environment and in reporting the out of place or otherwise suspicious.

The United States, in the aftermath of 11 September, invested substantially to make good their deficiencies. An important part of the US response has been the development of public warning systems and advice to mitigate the impact of catastrophic attacks. The Australians too, in response to the Bali bombing, have initiated a proactive public engagement policy. One of the Australian initiatives has been to provide each of her citizens with a booklet offering information on Australia's response assets and generic advice on how individuals might contribute to their own security and well-being.

Much work to counter catastrophic terrorism has been undertaken in the United Kingdom but the policy thus far has been not to seek public engagement in confronting the threat. The rationale offered for this is the need to avoid public panic, yet those inclined to panic are already doing so. The vast majority of citizens have an enormous capacity to handle bad news provided it is delivered in a timely manner. Information supplied after an attack will do little to aid prevention or effect mitigation. Conversely, the absence of information on how to recognize threats and respond to them is likely to increase the number of potential casualties.

Essential to an effective response to catastrophic terrorism are an executive appointment that has influence across all government departments to facilitate the allocation of resources and co-ordination, a national strategy, a credible multi-agency response and public engagement. The United States has chosen to create a Department for Homeland Security to bring together many of the agencies that contribute to the response. In the United Kingdom the Home Secretary has historically held responsibility for counterterrorism. Until now the majority of counter-terrorism assets have fallen within the mandate of the Home Office, the one notable exception being the military for which long term and successful Military Aid to the Civilian Powers protocols are in place. It has been the subject of some debate whether a response involving all government departments can be effectively delivered in the absence of an overarching focus.

The probability of any individual being the victim of catastrophic terrorism is statistically low and, contrary to belief in some quarters, can be further reduced by the application of some simple measures. When the public are included as an element of the response they need to know what the threat is, how they might contribute to the prevention of attacks, and how they should respond in the event of being in the locality of an attack.

The threat primarily relates to Al Qa'ida and such individuals and organizations that identify with the Al Qa'ida ideology. Thus far, the Al Qa'ida weapon of choice has been high explosive with the one major exception being aircraft in the hands of suicide attackers. It is known, however, that they have an interest in deploying chemical, biological and radiological weapons.

Being familiar with domestic, social and work environments and the habitual routes connecting those environments will enable the population to contribute to the prevention of attack by reporting suspicious activity and ensuring a timely response. Official advice includes 'be alert, not alarmed' and 'go in, stay in and tune in'. Sound advice during periods of heightened threat or when there is timely notice of a forthcoming attack; but when an attack has taken place, does the public know what it might do while it awaits the arrival of the emergency response?

Individual CBR Vulnerability Assessment

The answers to the following questions will determine an individual's vulnerability to, or preparedness for a catastrophic terrorist attack and the degree of satisfaction with the level of preparedness achieved.

    1) Can you recognize the signs and symptoms of a CBR release?

    2) Do you know how to assist victims of a CBR release?

    3) Do you know how to minimise the probability of becoming a victim of a CBR release?

    4) Do you know what to do if you become a victim of a CBR release?

    5) Do you know what procedures the emergency response will undertake if you become a victim?

    6) If you are outside during a CBR release do you know what action to take?

    7) If you are inside during a CBR release do you know what action to take?

    8) Have you received any advice on the CBR threat and response?

    9) If you have received advice are you satisfied with it?

    10) Do you believe that the UK will be subjected to a CBR attack?

    11) If yes do you believe that the UK is sufficiently prepared to deal with an attack?

    12) Do you believe that the population is being provided with sufficient information about CBR threats and responses?

    13) Do you believe such information causes the population to panic?

    14) Do you believe that you would survive a CBR threat?

If most of the answers are 'yes', the respondent should be psychologically prepared for catastrophic terrorist attacks. If most of the answers are 'no', significant preparation is required.

Garth Whitty is Head of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience programme

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