June 3, 2016

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Counter Terror Strategy: Protecting the ‘Soft’ Targets – a Hardened Approach is Required

I have read many articles recently that quote the term ‘soft targets’ as a ‘hook’ to shake the reader into new activity and spur them onto new initiatives to encourage them to take protective action.

This is all well and good and we must indeed continue to be resolute, but in reality the terrorist has always sought to identify the ‘soft target’: the vulnerability of the arrangements in place designed to protect people, buildings and more recently the electronic platforms.  The attacks on soft targets are nothing new and we must not confuse them as being a change of direction for the terrorists or the means by which they wish to attack society.

How terrorist behaviour is changing

What can be seen as a change of terrorist behaviour is the comparatively more recent methodology of attacking at the heart of the community (rather than purely the ‘harder target’ economic infrastructure) and this has been evidenced tragically as far back as the Moscow theatre hostage incident in 2002 and the Beslan School hostage siege in 2004.  More recent examples are the failed ‘Tiger Tiger’ nightclub attack in London in 2007, the Mumbai attacks in 2008 and the Westgate Shopping Mall attacks in Nairobi earlier this year.

The commonality between these types of attacks and the suicide bombings that sadly continue globally with regularity is that they need to take place in crowded places in order to kill and maim as many people as possible.  There is of course the psychological element of fear that naturally accompanies any terrorist attack which at the societal level often fades as time moves on and, at worse, descends into varying levels of complacency.

The heroes here are the business continuity managers, emergency planners and corporate resilience officers who identify the lessons and work hard to embed them into their organisations.

But there is a sufficient difference that also serves as an alarm call to the authorities and all elements of society if they and we are willing to hear it.  That is, that there seems to be a shift away from the sudden suicide bombing tactic (which is expensive to the terrorist organisation in terms of the loss of radicalised individuals) and a move towards attacks that strike at the heart of the wider community, rather than just the buildings and transport systems at more target hardened locations.

The lone shooter or group attack with firearms serves to elongate the incident and brings about an extended media interest that serves the cause of the attackers more effectively. This does not mean that the city infrastructure will not continue to be attacked by suicide bombings, that threat will always exist, but there are reasons why we should pay equal attention to more community-based targets.

Consequences of the terrorist franchise model

For some time now, the franchising of the terrorist cell away from the core al Qaeda structure has meant that the level of training and finance has decreased.  This has made the soft targets a cheaper alternative to attacking the harder targets where there is little need for sophistication or enhanced training and therefore more likely to be chosen.

What cannot be underestimated is the psychological effect upon society if it feels that its very core is being attacked.  By ‘core’, I mean the places that we all frequent and gather that are not necessarily subject to a security regime.

The places where we also socialise, relax, live and visit.  The places where our families spend time together.  Places such as schools, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, airports (airside), train, marine and bus systems, shopping centres, tourist attractions, museums, universities and colleges, leisure centres, places of worship, cinemas and theatres and hospitals.  The very locations where we should be able to feel safe.

This focus is also the concern of international partners.  In October of this year, I addressed the US House of Representatives on the subject of counter radicalisation and protecting ‘soft’ targets.  The US government is acutely aware (as are we in the UK) that more work needs to be undertaken to raise general awareness levels of the potential risks to soft targets and the need for effective partnerships to harness the valuable contribution that can be made by corporates, SME’s and the wider community in the areas of intelligence, information sharing and target hardening.

Low cost, high impact targets

What is driving the need for this activity?  Well, CNN, in their international edition dated 27th September of this year quotes Fazul Abdullah Mohammed (suspected architect of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Nairobi and in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1998) as saying, “Our objectives are to strike London with low-cost operations that would cause a heavy blow amongst the hierarchy and Jewish communities, using attacks similar to the tactics used by our brothers in Mumbai.”

The document from which the quote emanates, which CNN understands was stored on a thumb drive, was found when Mohammed was killed at a government checkpoint in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, one night in June 2011.

Richard Barrett, the former head of counter terrorism for MI6, told CNN in the same article that while the plans were “pretty aspirational” they were found on “a very determined and extremely able operator who could convert plans to reality” and were seen as a “significant warning” by Western intelligence agencies.

Among the targets identified by Mohammed were Eton College because of its links with the Royal family and some parliamentary representatives, the five-star Dorchester and Ritz hotels and the Jewish neighbourhood of Golders Green in north London, perhaps taking place on “New Year’s, Valentine’s Day or even Hanukkah”.

This aspiration to attack London in the same way as the world witnessed Mumbai being attacked in 2008 is not new and immediate work to counter such an attack was put in place by the Metropolitan Police Service very quickly in 2009.  However, the same world again changed shape when the Islamist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Westgate Shopping Mall attack and showed the global audience that there has clearly been a shift towards targets that have a minimal level of defence.

The significant level of terrorist planning activity currently taking place in the UK was revealed by Andrew Parker the current Head of MI5 to the Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee last month.  He stated that 34 plans of attack had been disrupted within the last 8 years since the 7/7 attacks in London and although no further information relating to the intended targets is publicly available, it does show that there remains a very credible threat against the UK and it is reasonable to assume that, bearing in mind the aspirations of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed quoted above, at least some of these attacks could have been aimed at the softer targets within the UK community.

How businesses can mitigate terror risks at little or no cost

So, while the authorities are working hard in the background to disrupt and mitigate the potential for a soft target attack, what can the rest of us do to contribute to this effort?  I am aware that it is generally accepted that it is unrealistic to protect publicly accessible places where the freedom of movement, access and cost outweigh restrictive security measures.

However, the business sector in particular can focus some of its resources to undertake some very elementary activities with little or no cost and still maintain the very important balance between the need for security and freedom of movement and access.

The larger corporate entities will already have implemented some of the current advice available as a matter of course, but many of the softer targets will need to adopt a culture of becoming resilient.  This will include:

  • Identifying the specific threats to their industry by undertaking risk assessments and keeping a continuous interest in changes to attack methodology elsewhere in order to maintain a high level of situational awareness and mitigate the threat
  • Adapting to these changes quickly, which may mean preparing their organisation’s mindset and the need for everyone to start planning now
  • Driving to engage everyone in the preparation, management and recovery stages and begin with the need for all staff to identify any suspicious behaviour and being confident in reporting any sightings to police as soon as possible
  • Embedding a sense that resilience and the identification of any threat is the individual responsibility of everyone and ultimately removing the notion that their organisation is a ‘soft’ target
  • Retail outlets building relationships with their commercial neighbours and sharing fast-time information about potential and immediate threats
  • In addition to live scenario training, undertake regular evacuation exercises for staff and customers with an emphasis on staff on the ground practising taking charge and giving direction
  • Not allowing a culture of apathy, denial or complacency to exist by adopting a system of regularly briefing staff with updated information on national and global relevant events
  • Seeking the advice of local counter terrorism security advisors (CTSAs) via the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCTSO). They have a wealth of knowledge on target hardening of all sectors and should be a first port of call

Brett Lovegrove is chairman of the Defence and Security Group at the London Chamber of Commerce, the former head of counter terrorism in the City of London Police and the CEO of City Security and Resilience Networks (CSARN)

Brett Lovegrove’s colleague, Brigadier (retired) Jeff Little OBE, will be presenting on ‘Security, resilience and recovery in an increasingly uncertain world’ at Facilities Show 2016, which is co-located with IFSEC International. Jeff’s presentation will take place on the afternoon of 22 June in the FM Excellence Arena at ExCel London. Register here.

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