The news this week about the appalling killing in Woolwich of Drummer Lee Rigby has come as a profound shock to many in this country. While as a nation we are used to the loss of our armed forces personnel, often serving far from home (indeed since 1945 there has only been one year where UK personnel were not killed on active duty), it is a truly appalling incident when a serving solider can be attacked and beheaded on the streets of south London. The incident has led to a wide ranging debate in the UK about the nature of terrorism and what can be done to deal with such appalling incidents. Additionally there has been a huge focus on whether the security services could have done more to prevent it.
To the authors mind, the implied criticism of the Security Services seems unfair – one only has to look at the huge number of plots and attacks foiled over many years to realise how much evil that could have been wrought has been prevented from occurring. It is very easy to sit with the benefit of hindsight and say ‘MI5 could have done more to stop this’, but we must remember the reality that in a nation where there are reportedly many plots, many people of concern and finite resources, the Security Services have to get it right 100% of the time. The fact is that an attacker only has to slip through the net once for evil to occur. While it is important that there is a proper investigation into why things were not halted in advance, to Humphrey it is important that we perhaps reflect on how much we owe those in the Security Services who have spent years successfully halting all manner of attacks. Learning from failure is vital, but so is accepting that sometimes no matter how successful your methods, something could wrong. Essentially the media seem to believe that the Security Services must have 100% success from now until the end of time – frankly to the author, the fact that this attack is so unusual, and also the first successful domestic terrorism attack of its kind on the mainland since 2005 is a sign of how much has been achieved.
A uniformed decision?
There was a lot of criticism in some quarters over the decision to temporarily ban personnel from walking in uniform in public. It is understandable that people feared this as a sign that the UK was giving into terrorism, but equally if you have had a serious incident targeting a member of the armed forces, and do not know whether there will be follow ups, it would seem prudent to try to minimise the risk. While the tabloids perceived pride may have been hurt, it would have been far worse had there been follow up or copycat attacks planned which succeeded because the targets were easily identifiable.
Part of the challenge is to try and see how the UK military fit in a domestic context while wearing uniform. For decades it was an anathema to be seen wearing uniform in public, and even now it attracts raised eyebrows in some quarters. As a reservist the Author has worn rig in public and occasionally been surprised at either how little recognition there is of military uniform (being asked the time of the next bus / train is common, as is abuse when you say that you have no idea, for the questioner assumes you don’t know your employers own timetable!)
While wearing uniform in public is to be encouraged, if only to raise the profile of HM Forces, the question is what level of risk does it pose? In some areas it is extremely normal to see people wear uniform, one only has to wander round some of the Garrison towns or a Naval Base to see plenty of people in uniform. There is an understanding and acceptance of this as part of daily life. Paradoxically in some areas, particularly inner cities where there is a much reduced presence, it is far less common to see people wear uniform. The sort of people likely to be wandering the streets may be reservists or cadets making their way to drill nights, rather than professional military personnel. This in turn raises questions about whether it is right for them to wear uniform in public if they are living in a broadly non-military area, particularly a diverse one where not everyone is automatically supportive of the military or UK foreign policy objectives.
As the reserves are expanded, there will be growing numbers of people recruited into areas which may not have had a large military presence before. One of the most challenging questions from a security perspective is how to balance the desire to raise the profile of the military in the area, but also protect the personal security of not only the reservist, but also their families too.
There is no easy answer to this dilemma, for while no one wants to see the streets of some cities become ‘no go’ areas for UK military personnel, one also has to consider the level of risk associated with this.
How real is the risk?
The big worry is that this attack sends a message to other individuals with malicious intent – namely that you don’t need bomb making skills or complex training to conduct an attack that will monopolise the media’s attention. It seems that from public reports the two alleged individuals simply used a range of weapons which are freely available in certain parts of the inner city.
The lesson is that with a limited amount of reconnaissance to identify a suitable target, it is possible to have an effect far beyond what they could have hoped for. On a purely objective basis, the murder of a single soldier is a tactical incident – yet by capturing it for posterity on film, and broadcasting it so widely, it has had a strategic effect. The question that must surely be being asked by some potential attackers must be ‘why bother with a spectacular bomb attack’ which comes with inherent risks of detection, when a simple and basic knife attack will achieve similar coverage and an opportunity to pass on their message. The real worry must now be that there is a shift in attack patterns, away from so-called ‘spectaculars’ like the 7/7 bombings and more onto this sort of copy-cat attack which is far easier to plan, and far harder to stop.
One thing that will have been learnt is just how easy it is though to dominate the news cycle in the era of 24/7 media. If you time your attack well, and encourage filming and photography (as seen here) then the message will spread far and wide. It is hard to consider any republican terrorist attack in the 1980s or 1990s having a similar effect on the broadcast media – one only has to look at how the loss of a soldier was often barely reported by the later stages of OP BANNER. Then coverage only occurred with a truly appalling attack, or spectacular loss of life.
Today though, with the need to feed a voracious cycle of 24/7 coverage, and the ability to upload pictures and media in seconds, it is possible to quite literally dominate the world headlines in minutes. If you have a message that you need to pass, and you are not afraid of dying for your cause, then the lesson of the attack in Woolwich is that it is easy to dominate the agenda if you want to.
Similarly it is going to be ever harder for senior leaders to take decisions without being rushed into them. There is now an expectation in the media that people take charge and lead, often while the event is still on-going. Humphrey recalls hearing the BBC say in one report that no decision had yet been taken about recalling Parliament – this was barely 2 ½ hours after the attack. The idea that Government is able to process the information, take decisions and implement them in less time than it takes a journalist to eat an alcohol sodden lunch is utterly ridiculous. Yet the problem is clear – the terrorists can dominate the information agenda and set the headlines, while the machinery of Government, which was slick and well-oiled enough to deal with most crises in a short (i.e. hours – days) period of time, is now unable to cope with responding in minutes.
The media seemed to be obsessed about the calling of COBR, as if that was the panacea that would magically produce answers and see things happen, despite the fact that barely three hours after the incident much seems to have been unclear. This sets the alarming realisation that it is simply not possible now for Government to be able to handle a major crisis without the expectation by the media that it will all be sorted in minutes, and preferably in time for the headlines. The hell bent desire for coverage, even if it is vacuous, empty and says nothing is all that drives the media agenda now. Government is being expected to react to the tune of the media, often when this may not be the right time to do so.
One has to genuinely worry about how senior figures are able to make tough decisions with the full range of facts open to them. It can take some time to bring together an assessment of what has gone on, and consider the next steps. One only has to look at the media coverage to see how the story changed over the course of a few hours to realise that it’s really hard to know what’s going on until you’ve spoken to everyone and shared information around. How can Government hope to respond, except by rushing and making the wrong call in the heat of the moment in order to satisfy media demands for action? The Medias need for someone to be seen to do something seems to be more important than the need to do the most appropriate thing.
The attack on 22 May was a tragedy which will be scrutinised for years to come. But it is important to not take hasty measures, nor seek to attribute blame without considering what successes have also occurred. We must remember Drummer Rigby, but also remember that the fact we have been so shocked by this event perhaps highlights how unusual it is, and how it is so at odds with the values of the vast majority of the society we all share. Let us not diminish his memory by acting in a manner which shames us as a nation as a whole.