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Tom Clonan: We need to talk about how unprepared we are for a terror attack

“In the new reality, the ordinary police on duty, or Gardai, will be required to close down such attacks.”

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

‘SMASH HIS HEAD with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place or choke him, or poison him’.

This is the advice given by ISIS spokesman Abu Mohamed al Adnani in 2014 to would-be sympathisers of Islamic State throughout the world – especially within the US and European Union. This call to action, a call to mobilise low-tech and indiscriminate violence against ‘unbelievers’ in their home countries, has resulted in a spate of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks throughout the EU and US.

As Iraqi and Syrian forces – backed by the US and coalition airstrikes of ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ – close in on the final remnants of Islamic State’s ‘Caliphate’ in Mosul and Raqqa, IS has urged its followers and sympathisers to intensify and ramp up random, low-tech terror attacks throughout Europe and the US this year.

The international intelligence and security community fear that as Raqqa and Mosul are liberated, the leadership of IS will migrate to North Africa – Libya perhaps – to launch a renewed wave of terror attacks throughout Europe this summer. In a concurrent development, it is also feared that thousands of European Islamic State fighters will be forced to flee from Raqqa and Mosul – and that many of them intend to return to their homelands to carry out terror attacks.

It is in the context of all of the above that we have seen a significant evolution of the threat posed by Islamic State throughout Europe. In particular, vehicles such as lorries and SUVs have been used to indiscriminately kill dozens of men, women and children in attacks such as the Nice Promenade des Anglais attack, the Berlin Christmas Market attack, the London Westminster attack and most recently, the Stockholm attack of 7 April.

Why Stockholm attack is significant for Ireland

The Stockholm attack is very significant in that Sweden is – like Ireland – a neutral country that had previously had a low terror threat assessment. Ireland has five terror threat levels. After the murder of Irish tourists in Tunisia in 2015, the threat level was raised from ‘Low’ to ‘Moderate’ – meaning a terror attack in Ireland is ‘possible but unlikely’.

In light of recent developments involving low-tech ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks and particularly in light of the Stockholm attack – I believe that the threat level for Ireland should be raised to the next level, ‘Substantial’. In other words, that an attack within Ireland is ‘a strong possibility’.

Twelve months ago, I would have said that an attack on Ireland was possible, in theory, but unlikely. I now believe that a terror attack within Ireland – similar to the vehicle attacks in other European states – is a distinct possibility.

Islamic State and its sympathisers constantly seek out weakness and vulnerabilities to exploit in order to carry out terror ‘spectaculars’ or unanticipated, unexpected attacks on innocent civilians. The modus operandi of Islamic State in 2017 is to eschew complex coordinated attacks by cells in favour of lone individuals creating a mass casualty incident in a low-security, vulnerable environment – wherever that can be identified, irrespective of that state’s neutrality or otherwise.

Ireland is a weak link in counter-terrorism training

IS is strongly attracted by weakness and gaps in security. Unfortunately, Ireland currently fits that security profile as Europe’s weakest link in terms of counter terrorism awareness, preparedness and training.

In Europe and elsewhere among the security community there is an acceptance that because of the ‘lone wolf’ nature of the latest wave of ‘marauding’ attacks, they simply cannot all be detected and prevented by means of traditional surveillance and intelligence gathering.

Rather, the international security community recognise that the new game in town is to close down such attacks as soon as possible – preferably within minutes of their commencement.

In the case of the Bataclan Theatre attack, the Nice, Berlin, Westminster and Stockholm attacks – the perpetrators in each case were encountered and intercepted by ordinary cops on duty. Whilst specialist units did arrive at the scene of these attacks in their immediate aftermath – in all cases – the initial response, albeit by armed police in continental Europe, was by ordinary street cops on duty near the scene of such an attack.

For in the new reality, ordinary police on duty, or Gardai, will be the first responders.

Throughout Europe, ordinary cops have been briefed and trained in Counter Terrorism (CT) exercises in response to the evolving threat. Indeed, just three days before the Westminster attack, over 200 London Metropolitan police officers were involved in a ‘boots on the ground’ multi-agency simulation of a terror attack on the Thames. This live simulation, called ‘Exercise Anchor’ also involved hundreds of other personnel from London Ambulance, London Fire Brigade and the London Port Authority.

It is through such real-time, real-life exercises that first line responders train for the new terror threat and ensure faster, more effective response times with better outcomes and higher survival rates for innocent victims caught up in such attacks.

Gardai are literally ‘in the dark’

The Garda representative associations have unanimously stated that their rank and file members have received no training for such eventualities and that they are literally ‘in the dark’ in relation to the terror threat here. The AGSI for example has stated that ordinary gardai receive briefings on severe weather for example, but nothing on the current terror threat. This information – in contrast with best practice throughout Europe – is almost exclusively communicated to specialist units within an Garda Siochana.

Over this Easter break , I have spent time in the pedestrian areas of Grafton Street, Henry Street and Mary Street with my family of four children – including a wheelchair user. Unlike such pedestrianised areas in Europe, there are no retractable bollards or other obstacles to prevent a vehicle attack of the type seen in Stockholm, London and elsewhere in recent times. Aside from the issues raised here around intelligence sharing, boots on the ground exercises and training – this is an issue that should be addressed by the relevant authorities without delay.

An Garda Siochana has confirmed in recent days that it has formed a working group to update the national ‘Framework for Major Emergency Planning’ with regard to the advent of ‘suicidal’ ‘marauding’ attacks throughout Europe. An Garda Siochana has also confirmed that it has concentrated training in this regard to specialist units through the medium of theoretical ‘table-top’ exercises.

No training exercises for first responders

Ordinary, rank and file gardai – those most likely to be first on the scene of a marauding, suicidal, attack – have received no such training.

Nor have there been ‘boots on the ground’ real time training exercises involving the multiple agencies that would be required to respond to a marauding terror attack here.

In writing this opinion piece, I am conscious that some may regard it as sensationalist or scaremongering in its tone. However, I believe very strongly that discussion and debate around policing and security in Ireland is often closed down in a patronising and paternalistic fashion by a policing and justice hierarchy that suggest there is little or no threat and that there is ‘nothing to see here, please move along’.

Compared to other jurisdictions in Europe, Irish citizens are the least well informed in terms of the current evolving and emerging terror threat and the appropriate responses to it. For example, there is no equivalent in Ireland of the ‘Run, Hide, Tell’ campaign in Britain. This British Government information campaign includes YouTube videos (Run Hide Tell – Firearms and Weapons Attack) along with posters and information leaflets throughout all British cities and metropolitan areas.

In this way, our British and EU partners seek to foster an informed debate and an informed and vigilant citizenry in order to best protect ourselves against the current wave of home-based terrorists. If it takes a village to stop such a crime – then the village needs to be clearly informed of the threat.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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