Monday, July 02, 2007

In the wake of the failed bombings...

This gesture security is inevitable. But it has barely any practical value

The flurry of precautions after terrorist attacks are almost always charades. Real counter-measures all hinge on intelligence

Max Hastings

Pity anyone who must catch a plane or visit Wimbledon today, or indeed for many days to come. Following Friday's London bombs and Saturday's attack at Glasgow airport, security checks have intensified dramatically. Everybody engaged in what is now a vast industry wants to be seen to be trying harder.

It is another matter, of course, whether all the conspicuous activity that follows a terrorist incident adds a jot to public safety, to compensate for the huge economic cost it imposes. Most security precautions represent a charade. It is probably a politically necessary charade - we will explore that issue in a moment. But we should be sceptical about its practical value.

Gesture security attained its nadir in February five years ago, with the deployment of armoured vehicles at Heathrow. It was possible to accept that the security service and police possessed plausible intelligence that terrorists were preparing to attack an aircraft with a missile. It was impossible, however, to believe light tanks could play a useful part in preventing such an action. Aircraft landing or taking off are within comfortable range of a missile fired from well outside any airport perimeter. Even if an obliging member of al-Qaida knelt with his launcher beside a runway, it is unlikely he could best be frustrated by a 30mm cannon fired from the turret of a Scorpion.

The Heathrow tank deployment was a political, not military, precaution. It was designed to impress the public, rather than in the serious expectation of stopping an atrocity. This was an extreme case of nonsense security, but there are plenty of lesser ones every day in airport search queues.

A dilemma confronts the Home Office, intelligence services and police chiefs every time a terrorist incident takes place. They know that, rationally, there is little chance that imposing car checks at airports will accomplish anything more than adding an hour or two's delay to every passenger's flight time. Yet they are also acutely conscious that if they fail to be seen to raise their game, and another would-be terrorist then crashes into a British airport terminal, it would be a resignation issue.

The usual compromise is that extreme security checks are introduced for some days following a major incident. Then, when the headlines cool and the economic disruption becomes intolerable, security reverts to "normal". This does not represent a logical approach, but it is hard to see any way around it in a democracy vulnerable to media frenzies.

It is also hard for ministers and the police to pitch their public utterances. A reasoned statement, following the weekend's events, might have gone something like this: "After so much speculation about attacks on Britain by terrorists wielding weapons of mass destruction and biological weapons, it is a relief to see these attempts made with weapons as crude as cars filled with petrol and gas cylinders. The group carrying out the attacks are grotesque amateurs. At worst, their efforts might have inflicted the level of fatalities caused by a motorway smash." In reality, of course, it would be unthinkable for anyone in authority to say anything of the sort. Spokesmen must talk gravely about "a threat of dreadful carnage", because anything less would sound flippant and irresponsible.

When a nation is in a state of declared war with a state enemy, the issues are much simpler, and the public soon learns to understand them. When the Germans began bombing British cities in 1940, anti-aircraft guns put up big barrages whenever raiders were overhead. The belief that "we're hitting back" boosted morale. It was soon discovered, however, that shell fragments from the guns were inflicting almost as many casualties as German bombs, and that scarcely any planes were being hit. Most batteries were moved to places where they were less visible but might do some real good. Likewise, people stopped abandoning their work whenever a raid was threatened and sought refuge in shelters only if raiders were close overhead.

Yet conditions and expectations today, in times of peace, are very different. Public safety is threatened only spasmodically, and in the most erratic and unpredictable ways. What the army calls "point defence", meaning the protection of specific buildings and sites against assault, is neither feasible nor credible when the range of possible targets is almost unlimited, and the economic life of the country must continue.

Most of us have become reconciled to the steel gates in Downing Street and concrete barriers outside the Houses of Parliament. These are obviously high-profile targets. There is a real prospect, rendered more vivid by the people who crashed into Glasgow's terminal on Saturday, that terrorists could try to use a vehicle as an assault weapon against Britain's most famous national symbols.

Thereafter, however, common sense decrees that public buildings must take their chances. It is not credible, for instance, to fortify all airport terminals. We should recognise the searching of passengers for what it is, a necessary gesture unlikely to stop a half-sophisticated terrorist from smuggling some instrument of menace on to a flight.

All serious counter-measures hinge on intelligence: identifying potential threats by surveillance and penetration. The security service deserves more sympathy than it usually receives for its difficulties in achieving this. The range of militant young Muslims now in Britain, both homegrown and imported, is frighteningly large.

Since 9/11, MI5 has been deluged in money and has recruited thousands of new officers, including a significant number of Muslims. But it takes years to train such people and enable them to gain the experience to become Smileys. More than that, they do not receive anything like the assistance from the British Muslim community which they need effectively to contain the threat, never mind defeat it.

It is difficult for intelligence officers to distinguish between militants who merely talk big and those actually intending to commit acts of violence. An MI5 officer described to me a while ago the problems posed by suspects who behave normally for months, even years, before suddenly embarking on an attack. Surveillance requires a massive commitment of manpower. Every day, MI5 is obliged to make life-and-death choices about who it will continue to monitor. The quality of police assistance is patchy, to put it politely, and a source of much dismay in intelligence circles.

Although I am as sceptical as many people about the loss of civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism, it seems essential at the very least to legitimise interception evidence in court proceedings. This is a much more important tool for protecting the public than checking cars approaching airports, and causes far less inconvenience to the innocent.

In the days ahead, we shall see plenty more gesture security, because that is politics in the wake of a terrorist incident. We should recognise it for what it is, however, and not confuse it with measures that serve the real purpose of protecting us from violent fanatics.

20 Comments:

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

Gert...I agree spot on with your entire assessment of the situation...except for one small excerpt...

"Yet conditions and expectations today, in times of peace, are very different."

This is where many folks are in error in their thinking. WE ARE AT WAR!!! Its not the conventional, uniformed armies combating on the battlefield war...but it is none the less a war....

 
At 5:59 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Only if you count a fight with a relatively small, ragtag and loosely affiliated bunch of terrorists (many clearly amateurs) a war...

What's happening here in Britain doesn't even remotely come close the trouble caused by the IRA in the seventies... We didn't really flinch then. Why now?

 
At 6:06 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

Your description of the terrorists may or may not be correct...depending on what particular Islamic Jihadist group is doing the damage...

To my knowledge...the IRA never brought down 4 airliners (actually at least 1 more) and two of the worlds tallest buildings...ya might wanna begin takin these folks seriously....at least giving them the benefit of the doubt as to what they are capable of....Never UNDERESTIMATE your enemy...

 
At 6:12 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

P.S....we did...and look what happened to us....

 
At 7:17 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Despite the damage caused on 9/11, even that attack was a relatively low-tech affair. A small number of determined and motivated radicals pulled of this stunt (although not everything went according to plan). They may do it again.

And Western reaction to 9/11 in Iraq was and still is today total madness. We know how many have died and are dying there today. We know some of the 7/7 bombers were directly inspired by these events. Will we ever admit that? No, let's play ostrich and blame everyone else. People like Bush, Blair, Rummy, Cheney, Wolfie and many, many others really should be held accountable but that will never happen of course...

Do you advocate striking "pre-emptively" against any country that doesn't happen to like us, just in case?

 
At 7:37 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

Never said anything about "pre-emptive" strikes...so please mate...don't try to bait me into one of your deep debates... ;-)

I also never said I liked any of the assholes..ooops...people you mentioned. I'm only talkin about about the fact that many folks in this world won't realize the real evil nature of these people until either an American or British city dissappears off the face of the map...and trust me...it will happen as soon as Iran sells one of their new nukes to Islamic terrorists...and Gert...I think that somewhere deep down...you realize/or suspect this also....

 
At 7:40 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

Well, I advocate striking and Iran pre-emptively and blowing their nuclear reactors to smitherins if you ask me...

And Gert, you seem to be paying more attention to the "horrible" security measures being imposed on "every-day" Brits than the implications of millions of radical Muslims living at your doorstep.

 
At 7:46 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Eitan:

"[...] than the implications of millions of radical Muslims living at your doorstep."

You been reading the J'Post again (lol)? In Britain we have just over 1 million Muslims (of all kinds of stripes: religiou/non-religious, assimilated, moderate etc and a few radicals too...) out of a population of 60 million. Try the real world instead of that jingoistic rightwing noise...

 
At 7:59 PM, Blogger Gert said...

As regards Iran, attacking it militarily would be one of the worst scenarios we could dream up. Clearly even Bush and co can see that. If a real WW III is what you want, go right ahead.

Let Iran have the bomb. Like everyone else, they would never use it because using it would turn the country into a radioactive pile of smouldering rubble and they know that too...

Tell me again, why did Israel want it [the bomb] and acquired it in total secret? Ah, yes, Project Samson: nuclear deterrence...

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger Eitan Ha'ahzari said...

Gert: My bad on the "millions of Muslims" remark. Regarding Iran, I don't have a doubt in my mind they will bomb Israel as soon as they get their hands on a nuke. Israel and Iran are totally different stories. Israel got the bomb for deterrence(that was a mistake in my mind because everyone knows we would never, ever use the bomb and all it did was create negative publicity...just another Peres stunt for ya)

Iran is controlled by religious fanatics who don't care one bit about their own people. They want to put an end to the world. They expect a retaliation but will use the bomb anyway.

Bush is an idiot. Instead of paying more attention to Iran he plays the cowboy in Iraq.

 
At 6:15 PM, Blogger Gert said...

The reason why being afraid of a nuclear Iran makes no sense is very simple: no country in the world is likely to ever use nuclear weapons in a first strike situation because it would mean sudden (and well deserved) nuclear death for that country. In the case of a potential nuclear stand-off between Iran and Israel, the latter has tremendous advantages: an estimated 200 - 250 nuclear warheads, delivery capability (long range missiles) and (perhaps just as importantly) second-strike capability.

The Neocons that advocate nuking Iran ("just in case...") seem to have forgotten one of the greatest lessons of 40 years of Cold War: the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) actually works. Not a shot was fired in anger between Nato and the Warsaw pact because the stakes were simply too high. The Soviets even promised sudden death at some point ("we will bury you") but couldn't carry out that threat without burying themselves...

On top of that comes the fact that Iran's political internal situation is very complex. The struggle between fundies and reformists continues unabated. That Iran will achieve civilian nuclear capability is a fact (even though they still today haven't got one single operational reactor!) But whether the regime will push for nukes remains up in the air. Of course the Iranians have blueprints for a Bomb, but so have I...

The age of nuclear non-proliferation is over: now we have countries like India and Pakistan going nuclear and being rewarded for it by being made allies of the West! The West has also not kept its side of the non-proliferation obligations at all.

More and more countries, including Arab, Muslim or Middle Eastern ones will eventually go nuclear, that process may be slow but it's irreversible: we cannot prattle endlessly about freedom, then tell others they can't have what we've had for half a century...

I'm not opposed to Israel having nuclear weapons (even though the US was very much against it at the time) but the drawback is that others will want them too, to redress the balance of power. That's so elementary I find it hard to comprehend that others don't see it. The truth is that others do see it, they just don't like what they see...

 
At 8:14 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

The problem I see with Iran is clear and simple. When the Nuke goes off...we won't actually know WHERE or WHO it came from. Stop and think about that. Who exactly would we retaliate against. It would...in all probability be a terrorist group that had obtained the bomb from Iran....Clear enuff amigo's....

 
At 8:30 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Cookie:

Firstly you are assuming Iran would give such nukes to terrorist groups but the deterrent here is the same: it would be impossible not to suspect Iran and they know that.

It's perfectly possible to make it clear to Iran that any nuclear terrorism sponsored by them would have justified and the direst of consequences. That kind of deterrence works.

 
At 9:02 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

I don't disagree with your "concept"...but...with all the PC going on in the world...and no absolute concrete evidence that the exploded Nuke came frum Iran for sure...can you imagine all the bullshit uproar that any country, Israel, US, UK would face for dropping a retaliatory nuke when there was no absolute Iranian connection....there in lise one of the problems.

I think just about any rational and reasonable thinking person would "suspect" Iran...but dropping a Nuke on just suspicion....that would indeed take balls on the part of any Nations leader....

 
At 9:28 PM, Blogger BEAJ said...

If you don't think a culture that encourages suicide bombings is the same as both sides in the Cold War, you aren't thinking too much.

When 72 Virgins are at stake, a nuke in the wrong hands will most likely be used.

 
At 3:25 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Cookie:

So you're willing to attack Iran, even before it gains nuclear status ("PC" at that point doesn't bother you) but if we had serious suspicions that Iran was involved in nuclear terrorism you believe the world would not react because "PC"??? And attacking Iran at this point would not "take balls on the part of any Nation's leader"??? It seems you're getting lost in your own contradictory thoughts...

BEAJ:

This conflict between the West and Iran is a conflict like any other, it follows the same rules of gain v. pain and universal deterrence. Suicide bombers don't make this in essence any different: they are a weapon. The Allies in their long history have also killed countless civilians, believing this was justified...

All:

Trust me on this: unless things escalate very badly and completely unexpectedly, it is highly unlikely that the West will take military action against Iran. The most likely course of action is a typically human kind of "muddling along", using delaying tactics, diplomacy, half-baked UN resolutions, leading to a messy but stable compromise. Neither will obtain completely what they want but saving face is an important factor in International stand-offs.

 
At 3:57 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

Gert....where in the hell have I stated that I'm for a pre-emptive strike?? You keep saying that and I haven't stated it...you are either twisting my words or I'm NOT making myself clear....

The entire situation is a conundrum...we're damned if we do...we're damned if we don't....

If I had to lean in any direction..it would in fact be for a pre-emptive strike...but as yet...I haven't finalized any personal decision...

You're the one who always talks about remembering history...and the history in this case goes back to pre WWII Nazi Germany and the Chamberlain appeasement...didn't work then...won't work now....

So...I'm just glad I'm NOT a world leader, because at this stage of the game...I'm not totally sure what the best move is....

 
At 4:06 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Cookie:

What else can striking Iran even before it has reached nuclear (civilian or military) status be called other than "pre-emptive striking"? Huh? You have another word for it? Please enlighten me...

As regards "appeasement", try not to insult my intelligence. That's a word someone on the right picked and it went around the world like wild-fire, blindly parroted by those who don't understand the first thing about Europe's inter-bellum period. Ask yourself why the US (for very understandable and clear reasons) wasn't so keen on joining WW II either...

 
At 5:17 PM, Blogger Cookie..... said...

OK...I won't say appeasement...can you say Capitulation???

You seem in a contentious mood today. I'm certainly not attempting to insult you...I truly respect your knowledge and intellect...but call what Chamberlain did whatever you want...it was like giving Hitler the green light, and are suggesting that what the Allies eventually did was not the right thing to do??

 
At 6:20 PM, Blogger Gert said...

Cookie:

Trying to summarise a highly complex period of European history (the inter-bellum) into a one-liner makes no sense and isn't something I can (or want to) get my teeth into.

Comparing Nazi Germany to Iran is also non-sensical. Pre-WW II Germany had become the mightest European power, at least militarily speaking. Today, Iran, with or without nuclear weapons, would not be a match to the West's and Nato's military might, although a ground invasion of Iran would be costly in blood and treasure.

You should really try and study Iran's internal political situation a little more, rather than listen to blowhard armchair generals like Shaun Hannity.

In spite of all the sabre-rattling, there are no serious plans for an attack on Iran. There are far too many options that need to be considered first.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home