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Gardaí at the crime scene in Dundalk yesterday

'With relative garda silence on Dundalk attacks, speculation and Islamaphobia swept across Internet'

Proactive, public engagement and dynamic crisis communication are built into the emergency response planning of the police forces within most EU states, writes Tom Clonan.

EARLIER TODAY, GARDAÍ investigating yesterday’s attacks on three innocent people in Dundalk said they have so far found no evidence that they were terror-related.

Investigators are still making inquiries internationally but based on the information to hand, I am not convinced that the incident in Louth was terrorism either.

It was, however, terrifying and understandably generated a great deal of fear locally and nationally.

Only last month, in a piece published on, I predicted ‘lone wolf’ terror attacks involving knife wielding perpetrators would continue to be a threat throughout the EU, including Ireland, during 2018.

From the scraps of initial information emanating from Dundalk yesterday morning, we knew of a marauding knife attack in the town involving a young man of Middle Eastern origin.

The initial fatal stabbing attack on Japanese citizen, 24-year-old Yosuke Sasaki occurred on Avenue Road, Dundalk at around 9am. Over the next 45 minutes or so, another young man, an Irish citizen, was reportedly stabbed on Coe’s Road. Another young man was reportedly assaulted with a fence post at Seatown Place.

This information entered the public domain in a gradual, drip-feed manner.

The attacks echoed many of the hallmarks of recent so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks carried out by Islamist extremists in Britain, France and Germany – a stabbing ‘spree’ targeting random defenceless victims on the street.

As a consequence, predictably and understandably, there was a great deal of fear and concern expressed through traditional, digital and social media that this might be a terror attack.

However, there were many elements of the incidents that did not match the patterns of such terrorist attacks. The first victim was taken completely by surprise and was stabbed from behind. So-called Islamist jihadis typically confront their victims in crowded places while shouting slogans or phrases in Arabic.

Most Islamist terrorists – who have been groomed online or instructed or trained by a terror cell – tend to select targets for their attacks where there are large concentrations of people, such as restaurants or transport hubs; not quiet streets in small towns. The intention is to attempt to create a mass casualty incident – to kill and wound as many people as possible.

The alleged perpetrator was arrested having reportedly being observed behaving ‘erratically’ by an unarmed member of An Garda Síochána. This would also appear to be inconsistent with the determined, purposeful and suicidal actions of killers in previous terror attacks involving knives.

Communication breakdown

When such attacks occur in the EU or USA, the authorities normally provide regular updates on the evolving situations. Police and security apparatuses in developed nations invest significant resources in communicating their response to the general public. This is always done when such organisations are in extremis – in the middle of a major terrorist attack or in its immediate aftermath.

For example, the Manchester Police provided regular public briefings and updates during the night of the Manchester Arena bombing and into the early hours of the morning following the attack – despite the fact that there was frantic police and first-responder activity underway in dealing with the 23 fatalities and almost 500 people injured.

As well as this frontline aspect, their job also entails keeping the public calm and ensuring they are safe – or if they are not, to tell them how to make themselves more so.

Proactive, public engagement and dynamic crisis communication are built into the emergency response planning of the police forces within most EU states and developed nations. It is considered international best practice to communicate proactively to the public during terrorist, or possible terrorist, incidents – using both traditional and digital media and social media platforms.

In the aftermath of the Dundalk incident, An Garda Síochána issued a short press statement confirming a stabbing incident at 10.35am but they did not hold a press conference until 3pm.

In the intervening hours of relative silence, wild speculation proliferated on social media platforms with a great deal of Islamaphobic and anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in some quarters.

Initial reports described the 18-year-old man as a ‘Syrian’ national. At least one outlet published, citing unnamed sources, what seems to now be erroneous information that there were Arabic slogans shouted by the perpetrator. Corrections or clarifications were not offered by authorities.

During yesterday’s incident, @GardaTraffic – the force’s official Twitter account ‘with info on traffic and major events’ – only issued one tweet in relation to the incident. At 10.35am, they tweeted that there were road closures and diversions in place in Dundalk, with no further updates or information on the highly charged situation.

@Gardainfo, its account providing ‘general/community Garda info’ did not tweet at all in relation to the incident – save to express sympathy for the victims at 12.33pm today – over 24 hours later.

An Garda Síochána’s emergency response to yesterday’s incidents was world class in very many respects.

Ordinary, unarmed, members of the force responded very rapidly to the incident – in less than seven minutes in the case of the initial fatality.

They also arrested and detained the suspect without the use of excessive or lethal force as is – sadly – often the case in other jurisdictions in such situations.

It would also appear that some members interacted with the suspect on New Year’s Day – treating the teenager with kindness, advising him to register with their colleagues in the Garda National Immigration Bureau in Dublin.

In this manner, Dundalk gardaí appear to have proactively reached out to this young man and acted in good faith and in a manner consistent with an open, free democracy where persons are not detained for lack of identity papers or their equivalent.

In terms of communication and public information however, there is room for considerable improvement on the part of the primary political stakeholders involved in policing, security and intelligence.

I do not believe this is the fault of gardaí on the ground, or indeed Garda management in Dundalk. Nor do I believe it is the fault of the Garda Press Office – it may be a cultural ‘legacy’ issue around secrecy – or a lack of investment and resources in communication at the level of the Department of Justice.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter here.   

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