Triangle of vulnerability

Published:  23 March, 2017

Public complacency and potential intelligence failures can only embolden already creative and intelligent terrorist organisations that remain focused on the aviation industry argued Dr Dave Sloggett in his address to this year's AFOA conference. Fiona Petty reports.

Living in a heightened state of emergency has become the new normal in the UK, argued Dr Dave Sloggett in his address to this year’s AFOA conference held at Gatwick, and this represents a security risk in its own right.

Discussing what he called ‘the triangle of vulnerability’, Dr Sloggett pointed out that the threat level in the UK has been at ‘severe’ for just over 55% of the last ten years. The result, he said, is a public so accustomed to the idea of an imminent attack that they are no longer alert to the warning signs.

It could be argued, said Dr Sloggett, that the government will not raise the threat level to ‘critical’ until after an attack has taken place. To do so would deter terrorists and make them postpone an attack by a few days, by which time the emergency services would be exhausted from waiting for an attack to come at any moment. An example of this occurred in Brussels at Christmas 2015. The siege mentality of being at critical was broken by members of the public who simply returned to their normal lives after three days.

The general public is used to living in an atmosphere of fear. To some extent, suggested Dr Sloggett, this has created a situation in which the public is immunised from things going on around them and fail to spot obvious indicators of an emerging threat.

As an example of public complacency, Dr Sloggett cited the public response to the activities of Damon Smith, a 19-year-old student who moved to London in September 2016.

Smith’s journey to radicalism started with the dramatic impact on his self-esteem of long-term bullying at school. The process of radicalisation was also quite quick, measured in weeks not months – a worrying new trend.

Two weeks after starting university, Smith left an unattended bag on a tube at Greenwich Underground station containing a bomb he had assembled using instructions found on the Internet. This act was witnessed by two of the twelve passengers in the carriage. They failed to appreciate that his action constituted a potential threat.

Despite this suspicious behaviour, a passenger delivered the bag to the driver indicating that it had been left by a passenger. Unbelievably, bearing in mind the incidence of bombs on trains, the driver accepted the bag and kept it in the cab while he contacted lost property.

When asked by the lost property staff to see if there was evidence of ownership, the driver opened the bag to find the bomb. Luckily it was defective. However, the intention was clear. It was to be a repeat of the attacks of 7 July 2007 when three bombs were detonated on London Underground trains. The bomb design used by Smith is reported to have been almost the same as those used to attack the Boston Marathon on 15 April 2013.

Our western value of ‘judging others by our own standards’ is increasingly being tested. The public now has to rise to the challenge and ensure the safety of themselves and others.  This cannot simply be delegated to the authorities. The nature of the threat is emerging so quickly that the security and emergency services are struggling to keep up.

While the intelligence agencies have an impressive record of interventions over the past ten years, terrorists are increasingly operating off the radar of the security services by using smarter, encrypted mobile applications such as Telegram. This is problematic. If the intelligence services fail, it is up to the emergency services to pick up the pieces. 

The Tunisia shootings – in the news recently thanks to the coroner’s hearings – highlight the responsibility of holidaymakers to make their own judgements as to their safety, and also put the spotlight on the issue of safety advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the tourism industry. 

Early indications from the coroner’s hearings do not make pleasant reading. A gulf appears to have opened up between the FCO and the tourism industry over their assessment of the threat in Tunisia. Into that gulf fell the 38 people who died, and those who suffered long-term physical or mental injuries.

The attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis just three months beforehand should have provided a clue as to the security situation in the country. Other warnings and indicators were readily available in open sources. The number of young people travelling from Tunisia to Syria and Iraq to join so-called Islamic State clearly outnumbered those travelling from other locations. It was and remains the primary source of non-Iraqi and non-Syrian fighters.

This clearly illustrates that as members of the public we need to take more responsibility for our own safety and the safety of those around us. The problem of apathy is understandable given that the last significant terror attack in the UK has all but disappeared from public view.

In a second example of complacency – this time from law enforcement – Dr Sloggett described the back story behind the attack in Nice that saw 84 people die. The truck that ploughed its way through revellers celebrating Bastille Day could so easily have been stopped. Nine hours before the fireworks took place, the truck was waved through a security gate and allowed to park because the driver told the police it was full of ice-cream. Even scant attention to detail would have revealed this was not the case.  

The lorry was not refrigerated. It also had no name on the side indicating it was selling ice-cream. This was a catastrophic example of human error and complacency by the French police, and this kind of failure is not an isolated incident. It is an issue across Europe.

The Paris attacks show how terrorism is innovating. IS fighters are on the move. An estimated 1,750 have returned to Western Europe, with many presumably ready to engage in hostile acts.

Arguably the most innovative aspect of the dreadful attacks in Paris was that they were led by a single person who had military training in the Iraqi armed-forces. The attacks were a structured military operation, with a commander giving orders to three separate commando teams operating on the ground using a variety of tactics. 

Their actions that night – including a 15-minute shooting spree targeting restaurants – were coordinated in what in military terms is known as a scheme of manoeuvre. These tactics seek to create moral dilemmas and to dislocate the response of the emergency services – risking command inertia and a higher death toll of members of the public.

Alarmingly, the commander was seen on CCTV re-entering Paris via the underground after the attack. He systematically photographed the response of the emergency services.

In the US, the Fort Lauderdale shooting shows a lack of clarity and systematic failures by the intelligence services – despite the obvious distress shown by the gunman Esteban Santiago.

Santiago had previously presented himself to the FBI in Anchorage explaining that he was hearing voices. He was in possession of a gun and the police took it off him.  However, once he was discharged, the gun was returned to him even though he was clearly in need of help. The attack could so easily have been stopped had this situation been handled differently. 

The Berlin Christmas market attacker Amis Amri was also known to police. He had come to their attention on several occasions, and the authorities could have arrested him seven times before he made that fateful journey, killing 24 people and horrifically injuring a further 49. Problems of the structures of intelligence services in European countries, such as Germany, are clearly being exploited by terrorists.  

An attitude of ‘it could never happen to us’ needs to be replaced with a cautious and suspicious approach, said Dr Sloggett. If not, hindsight will be of little comfort the next time people die in an act of terror that could have been prevented.

Since January 2009 the number of terrorist attacks has risen to over 2,000 each month. There is nothing to indicate that this number will decrease. Complacency and intelligence failures are just another tool IS can use to its advantage.

This deadly triangle of vulnerability reflects the emerging way in which the threat is challenging society at large. While the authorities are doing their best to control and neutralise the sources of the attacks, they cannot all be prevented. It is time for the public to understand this and play their role more fully. Their lives could quite literally depend on it.

  • Operation Florian

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