A note on terrorism

Protection against terrorist attack and its consequences currently features prominently in the security planning of many organisations, but here is a thought that may go against the current zeitgeist.

It is hard to define what motivates terrorists. They may be driven by politics, religion, nationalism, sectarianism or single-issue extremism; or they may, quite simply, be deranged or seeking a justification for straightforward crime. (Very often, we are so preoccupied with dealing with their threats and attacks that we do not even stop to consider their true motivations - if they in fact have any.)

Indeed, it is famously difficult to define terrorism, despite the best efforts of many supposed gurus in the field. It is all too easy to find exceptions that render inadequate any attempt to create an all-encompassing definition to which exceptions cannot be found.

The historian Professor Walter Lacqueur tried to keep it simple, with the proposal that: "The only characteristic generally agreed upon is that terrorism involves violence or the threat of violence". To which one must add that this is also a characteristic of war, diplomacy and the posturing of football crowds, but not of a distributed denial-of-service attack carried out by, say, animal rights extremists (which latter might well be an attack with traditional terrorist motives).

Of course, as the High Court judge (probably apocryphally) said of pornography, "we know it when we see it", and such is the case with terrorism. There will have been a deliberate act, possibly creating large-scale casualties, with an apparent lack of humanity in the target selection (think of Beslan on 3 September 2004). Despite the best efforts of counter-terrorism planners, the event may have seemed irrational or unpredictable, but there will have been a good opportunity for publicity for the perpetrators. The motivation of the attackers may have been unclear, but they may have shown a willingness to face certain death.

We may ask ourselves how a terrorist target is chosen. Perhaps the organisation is part of, or associated with "the system", or its nationality, perceived allegiances, loyalties, brand name or activities make it a target. It may be simply that there is an opportunity for large-scale casualties (Mumbai, 11 July 2006) or for dramatic PR. Or perhaps the target is seen to have security weaknesses, or was simply unlucky - in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So, rightly enough, organisations and individuals fear the terrorist attack that may strike without warning and with catastrophic consequences. As a result, there is no shortage of private and public sector organisations that will offer advice to organisations seeking to avoid becoming victims of a terrorist attack, or on how to survive if they do. Indeed, the UK’s Security Service makes available on the internet a comprehensive guide to counter-terrorism preparedness

But here are the thoughts that are not often expressed. Firstly, terrorism and the threat of terrorism may distort security planning. Where the attention of the CEO and the security or emergency planning staff becomes focussed on the single issue of terrorism, in-depth and comprehensive strategic security planning may suffer.

A well-designed and properly-implemented security strategy will aim to give protection against all forms of crime, and not simply terrorist crime. There may be a need for some individual add-ons to deal with specific terrorist-related issues, but, whilst most organisations will suffer as the result of non-terrorist security breaches, relatively-few will be the direct victims of a terrorist attack. Traditional crime will be an ever-present danger.

The thought that goes with the above - and it relates as well to general security precautions as it does to counter-terrorism ones - is that you should consider the effect of your precautionary measures on those you are protecting. It is an old adage, rarely heard now, that one of the aims of the terrorist is to persuade host governments and corporate bodies to pass knee-jerk laws or rules and implement security measures that are repressive, contradictory and apparently futile. Their aim is to make the government (or corporate body) unpopular and to inhibit citizens and employees from going about their business and enjoying the traditional liberties that they expect.

None of this is intended to decry the excellent counter- and anti-terrorist security work done in many quarters. Nor is it meant to persuade the reader to ignore counter-terrorist measures. But it is a cry for proportionality. When you seek to implement any security measures in your organisation, ask yourself:

In short, don’t do the terrorist’s job for him by delivering a society or a corporate environment that is hamstrung by unnecessary procedures and in which your people are frustrated by security diktats that bring the function of security into ridicule.

The writer HL Mencken said: "I believe it is better to be free than to be not free, even when the former is dangerous and the latter safe". This may be the only security website on which you will find this notion proposed in this context, but it underlines the philosophy at Wyllie Associates. Contact us here…