Surviving the age of Insecurity

I have spent much of last year investigating the phenomenon of radicalisation and extremism in Britain’s prisons at the request of the Secretary of State for Justice. Much of our work involved trying to understand the Islamist extremist mindset and find ways of reducing the threat posed by those ideologically inspired offenders who wish to harm our country and change our way of life.

Terrorism and the fear it engenders is, of course, not a new phenomenon. I was born in Northern Ireland near the border and I grew up with the shroud of Irish republican terrorism hanging over me and my family. Then, the key issue was national identity. I came from a British/Unionist background and perspective and my identity was threatened by often sectarian terrorists who essentially said, ‘you are either Irish or leave.’ As bad as it was, and believe me, it was very dark at times on the Fermanagh border, it is dwarfed – almost made quaint – by the scale of the IS/Daesh threat which now confronts the United Kingdom and all western liberal democracies.

But there are some common threads in the causes and consequences of ideologically motivated offending then and now. Both rely on the animating power of grievance, a martyrdom narrative and the requirement to dehumanise the enemy in order to carry out barbaric actions against a civilian population. Both also have the capacity to provoke a violent counter-reaction as we saw to appalling effect in Northern Ireland with the emergence of Protestant paramilitary murder gangs and we might yet see in England if we are not careful.

It is all too easy, in this age of uncertainty and threat, where periodic mass killings of civilians across Europe seem to be the ‘new normal’ for ordinary people be overwhelmed by fear. To think that they have no agency in keeping the UK safe. This, of course is both the objective of the current Islamist terrorist threat and the means by which it can be realised.

Let’s be clear, the Government and security agencies in the UK, who are involved in a relentless battle against active terrorist plotting, cannot alone keep this country safe. It is a fallacy to suggest otherwise. Defeating terrorism relies on engaged communities vigilant and willing to pass information to the police. Engaged communities are only possible if these populations, whatever their ethnic origins or beliefs, feel they have an equal stake in this country and the freedom it represents.

Of course the vast majority of all our citizens already think they are ‘onside.’ Bringing the rest along is a crucial societal task but not one which there is time to dwell on here. Let’s deal with the thing in front of us – how can you mobilise the UK population to effectively increase our personal security?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to ask first, ‘why’ this should be done. This is a critical question because it goes to the heart of what we as a nation stand for and value. It is not a question which is considered enough in ‘transactional’ security policy where the ‘more threat – higher walls’ mentality is an understandable but ultimately self-defeating response to the latest outrage.

We need to be more sophisticated than this to solicit public support. We need increased security as the proportionate instrument of protecting our current way of life, not as an inevitable end state. We need to remain a free, open sometimes raucous accountable democracy – pluralistic and tolerant. This is the precious thing which sets us apart from Theocracies, kleptocracies, dictatorships and failed states the world over. It is quite simply the light shining in the darkness which the current jihadist terrorists are determined to extinguish at any cost. These are the battle lines. The paradox is that in security terms we simply can’t afford to cover our Achilles heel.

So how can we mobilise the population in this age of insecurity? Recent events in Orlando and Brussels underline the role police and civilians can play in preventing and managing terrorist incidents. The public response to such atrocities – ranging from an outpouring of love and compassion to people queuing up to donate blood is admirable and necessary but we must do more ‘upstream’ to detect and deter the terrorist offender before they have a chance to carry out such murderous attacks.

There is an assumption that this capability is somehow ‘oven ready’ in our population. I listened with some disbelief recently to a British Transport Police senior officer saying that commuters were his greatest asset in the current struggle to protect our railways from terrorist attacks. This is theoretically true but just how many of us, buried in Metro, squashed into a Tube or commuter railway carriage or bus are even aware of our neighbours, let alone confident enough to challenge and report suspicious activity? Let alone do anything more than freeze with terror if, God forbid, an attack unfolds in front of us? Government cannot rely on the assumption that a few buzz words on a minor publicity campaign and a belief in people’s innate curiosity will win the day. There is much more that can and should be done in terms of training, support and awareness to truly mobilise an army of eyes and ears, to give people who are scared and fearful (or even apathetic!) some sense that they are in fact crucial players for ‘Team UK.’

In the private sphere, there is also a huge opportunity for a corporate response to terrorism by mobilising employees to ensure private spaces are protected and services are delivered safely –  by making every employee right across the supply chain personal responsibility for detecting and defeating terrorism. It can be done. It must be done.

And remember, properly mobilising the United Kingdom’s peoples against a terrorism threat, skilling them to understand how to detect and report suspicious behaviour, equipping them to react to protect themselves in the event of attack is defeating the terrorists prime objective of demoralising our population. It is a necessary way to help our country survive the age of uncertainty and its citizens to live their lives as they wish. Ignorance is not strength. George Orwell would understand and – I think – approve.

Sampson Hall have people with the expertise to help any sized organisation train and mobilise their employees to become the eyes and ears, if you would like further information then please contact us or visit




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