John Reid: We must be more alert than ever

The terror threat is constantly evolving. But is our capacity to deal with it?

Share
Related Topics

September 3 and September 11; eight days that separate anniversaries of death. Last week saw the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland marking the beginning of the Second World War. This week marks the eighth anniversary of the terrorist attacks by al-Qaida in the United States.

The fallout from those atrocities has subsequently framed international relations and domestic politics across the world. It was, at least in part, from the experience of WW2 that we derived the United Nations; the European Union, the European Convention of Human Rights; a legacy of opposition to racism; international monetary mechanisms and a resolve that it would never happen again. A resistance to the possibility of world war recurring was embedded in our institutions and way of thinking.

And the legacy of the 9/11 attacks? Most obviously in the immediate aftermath came the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Tightened security procedures and structures domestically (most noticeably here in the UK with the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism) and heightened international cooperation. We have also seen, of course, the spread of terrorist phenomena such as suicide bombings, including to the streets of London in July 2005, and, as this week's UK court verdicts on the August 2006 airline plotters confirm, to the skies overhead too.

So does our response match the challenge we face? Of course, much has been done to strengthen security structures around the world. But let's understand the magnitude of the challenge. The complexity of the threat environment we face underlines the degree to which today's terrorists have a different mindset and "new" ways to cause harm. For the first time in history both of the orthodox elements of threat – intention and capability – are now almost completely unconstrained; terrorists embrace a willingness to kill millions and have available the destructive capacity to do so.

Above all perhaps, the inexorable process of globalisation has rendered everyone increasingly inter-dependent and vulnerable. The threat we face is seamless, running across the boundaries of defence, foreign affairs, domestic and social life. Driven by technological advances in transport, communications, and electronic networks, globalisation has delivered opportunities in terms of mobility, movement and exchange of people, ideas, values, resources, commodities and finance.

But this same globalisation process and associated technology has also brought new threats, or intensified existing ones. For instance, it has left nations and peoples ever more vulnerable to phenomena such as international crime, terrorism, cyber-attack, health pandemics, energy-politics, resource shortage and financial crises.

The degree of instability and uncertainty accompanying this measure of interdependence tends to mean that crises (defined as crucial turning points in events rather than as catastrophes) are recurrent and thus the rule rather than the exception.

The sheer mass of information engulfing decision-makers can have a paralysing effect. And the speed with which threats spread is magnified in proportion to the degree of interdependence. We need look no further than the current flu pandemic which began in Mexico; or the financial crisis that has cascaded across the globe from the US sub-prime housing sector to see the "globalisation" effect in practice.

This bias towards instability is exacerbated by the fact that the nature of the potential crises we face is constantly evolving. Thus, in the context of international terrorism, we must not only guard against relatively low-technology attacks that feature the daring, persistence and lateral thinking demonstrated by both the 9/11 attackers, and the plotters who were found guilty in court this week of planning to blow up airliners over the Atlantic; but also even more sophisticated threats involving nuclear, biological, and radiological devices whose transportation has been facilitated by increasingly seamless global networks.

The fact that crises are recurrent and constantly evolving means it is essential to continually upgrade our capacity to deal with them by identifying, exposing and remedying our deficiencies. This is a relatively uncontroversial ambition, shared by many. It underpins the government's approach to updating our National Security Strategy.

But while government commitment is essential, it won't be done by government alone. That's partly why we are establishing the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London. The new Centre will address projects of vital importance to national and international security. The goal is to assess and embed resilience as well as analysing threats; and to extend this analysis into action in outlining policy options to shape our preparation, response and recovery to crises.

This insistence on "embedding" resilience throughout organisational structures and culture is essential given the nature of contemporary society. Where there is, for instance, global availability of information through the internet, satellite and mobile communications, resilience to threats must be embedded in a decentralised way (rather than top-down). To the degree that resilience can ever be said to have depended on an elite management at the top of organisations, this is no longer the case – hence the need to bring together practitioners from the public, private and third sectors with academics in order to combine theory and practice in targeted projects.

Such partnership-working is also paramount because of the scale of the challenges we face. If we are to be able to keep up, and potentially be one step ahead of our adversaries, we will need to pool our ingenuity to innovate and deliver solutions.

Ironically, while today's threats are "new", in a sense what we are looking for is a recall of the past. Just as innovators such as Alan Turing and Tommy Flowers, and institutions such as Bletchley, were vital in the technological battles to beat the enemy in yesteryear, so we must now pool our skills and expertise today in our battles against contemporary menaces and foes.

The goal must be nothing less that ensuring that government, business and society can not only cope with, but flourish, in the increasingly uncertain times in which we live.

Dr John Reid, a former Home Secretary and Defence Secretary, is MP for Airdrie and Shotts, and Chairman of the Institute for Security and Resilience Studies at University College, London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Army reservist Corporal James Dunsby  

Whether it’s in the City, the Army or at school, this ritual sadism has to stop

Chris Blackhurst
Caitlyn Jenner, the transgender Olympic champion formerly known as Bruce, unveiled her new name on Monday  

'I'm the happiest I've been for a long time and I finally know where I fit': Here's why role models matter for trans kids

Susie Green
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific