Dr. S. KABILAN's picture
Building Resilience to Terrorism
Posted on Aug 22, 2017

Lessons from Barcelona, Cambrils, Surgut and Turku

Barcelona, Cambrils, Surgut and Turku. The names of these four locations have been featured in headlines across the globe during the past week as areas hit by terrorist attacks. Yet again, we are left asking questions around how these attacks could have happened and if they could have been prevented. How much did we know about the attackers in each case? Were there any warning signs? Having worked with law enforcement and other agencies in several countries, I can tell you that significant efforts are constantly being taken to prevent these types of attacks. In fact, if it was not for these efforts, we would be experiencing many more successful terrorist attacks. 

The reality though is that it is next to impossible to prevent any and every terrorist plot that we may encounter across the globe. The only way to even come close to doing this, would be to create a police state with constant, intrusive surveillance, which is socially and politically unacceptable. While we need to continue efforts in preventing these attacks from occurring, we also need to be prepared in case we are hit by one of these attacks here in Canada. The events across the past week offer some lessons that we should pay close attention to.

Adapting Responses to Evolving Terrorist Tactics

The attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils used vehicles to ram pedestrians, a tactical approach which has been on the rise recently. The attacks in Turku and Surgut involved stabbings, which we have also seen in other recent attacks. These two tactics have also been combined in a single attack in London. In all of these cases, the attackers have resorted to weaponizing commonly available items which would not raise suspicion when they are purchased or used for their intended purpose. While there is a lot we can do to restrict access to firearms and explosives, how do you stop someone from driving a car or buying a knife? When would either of these commonplace activities raise suspicion?

If we look back at the evolution of terrorist tactics, we see constant adaptation. Take the attacks on aircraft for example. Terrorists have gone from hijacking aircraft and placing bombs on them to using the aircraft as weapons, having individuals pack explosives into shoes and underwear and trying to smuggle bombs onto aircraft in printer cartridges. The reality is that terrorist groups tend to be highly innovative and adaptable. They are not bound by many rules and norms and are willing to find the easiest, most expedient tactics for carrying out their attacks. This means that we need to build emergency response teams and protocols that are flexible enough to adapt to the new tactics and tools that terrorists may deploy. We have to understand that these may be combined in a variety of ways and that terrorists will look to evolve and adapt their tactics to achieve their goals. Stabbings and vehicle rammings may be the tactics of choice today but what will tomorrow’s tactics be and will we be ready to cope with them?       

Blunting the Impact of Terrorism Through a Rapid Return to Normalcy

When a city or region is hit by a terrorist attack, I constantly hear about people cancelling trips to these areas or asking if it is safe to go there. This is a key aim of terrorist attacks – to create an atmosphere of fear. Despite the fact that these attacks are horrific, if you look at the statistics, the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack in Western Europe are very slim. In the UK for example, you would be far more likely to die from using your phone while driving rather than from terrorism. However, terrorist attacks seem to be able to create an almost visceral sense of fear – they are unexpected events which we have little, if any, control over that generate a sense of helplessness and uncertainty. This combination creates a broader and more significant impact from a terrorist event than can be simply summed by the deaths and injuries it causes.

Thus, when responding to a terrorist incident, one aspect that should be kept in mind is how to return to business as usual as quickly as possible. Moving through the impact of an attack and returning to normal quickly can blunt the fear factor from a terrorist incident, a viewpoint that is supported by a range of experts. This does not mean that shortcuts should be taken in the emergency response to a terrorist attack, but that the response protocols should be efficiently structured to facilitate a quick return to normalcy from a physical perspective, while recognizing that the psychological recovery process will be slower.

Building Resilience to Terrorist Attacks

Ultimately, if every single terrorist attack cannot be prevented, then, much like the challenge faced with natural disasters, we need to consider how we prepare for these events and build resilience to them. A resilient entity is one which can limit the impact of an emergency and return to normal far quicker than a non-resilient entity. Being adaptable in the face of changing terrorist tactics and blunting the fear resulting from these attacks through a rapid return to normalcy are two approaches to help build resilience to terrorist attacks. Investing in detection and prevention of terrorist attacks will always be crucial, but we must also be prepared to deal with the reality that every single attack cannot be prevented and ensure that we are as resilient as possible in the face of this threat.          

Dr. Satyamoorthy Kabilan is the Director of National Security and Strategic Foresight at the Conference Board of Canada.

More insights on emergency response to terrorism events are available in the Conference Board’s recent briefing on this issue.