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Erroll Southers: Effective Counter Terrorism Means Public Engagement

By Erroll Southers

QUIZ: Two crowded restaurants, each one in a different country; two unattended bags, each near the door of one of the restaurants. In one restaurant, patrons ignore the bag. In the other restaurant, a patron reports the bag to an employee. Name the location of each restaurant.

One such location could be the United States. In America, very little counter-terrorism education occurs and terrorism awareness is low. The public is informed in a reactive, viral delivery, the result of the latest video terror threat or subsequent to the next thwarted plot (if we remain lucky). The current government’s messaging either scares people or tells them nothing. They need neither.

The other location could be the United Kingdom. There, the government, homeland security professionals, educators, and municipal leaders engage in a constant, intelligent awareness and action dialogue with their constituents. Citizens at all levels become better informed with the key element of societal resilience – meaningful information.

The point America has been missing is the engagement of its biggest and best resource: the public. In many countries, citizens look for and report threats as a matter of course. A bag left unattended in a rail, bus or airport terminal or a busy shopping area will not stay there for long. Continued undervaluing of public education and the potential contribution of the private sector in America, renders the homeland security policies as reactive, anticipating the launch of yesterday’s threat, instead of identifying tomorrow’s attacker.

Perhaps the United States is ready for a paradigm shift. Such a reformation should start with the government communicating with citizens coherently, providing information designed to appeal to the common sensibilities of responsible adults.

The National Terror Advisory System (NTAS) will replace the disparaged, 9-year-old color-coded United States’ Homeland Security Advisory System in April. NTAS alerts, promising to be more dynamic, will be based on the nature of the threat: in some cases, alerts will be sent directly to law enforcement or affected areas of the private sector, while in others, alerts will be issued more broadly to the American people through both official and media networks, such as Twitter and Facebook. Additionally, NTAS will have a “sunset provision,” meaning that individual threat alerts will be issued with a specified end date. However, alerts may be extended if new information becomes available or if the threat evolves significantly. That’s a good start, but just that – a start.

The first hurdle for the new National Terror Advisory System will include the “need-to-know” parameters for the American public. Although well intentioned, this card is often overplayed. Last year, when German authorities received intelligence of suicide bombers plotting a “Mumbai-style” attack within their borders, they wasted no time advising the public of the threat, the target(s) and their strategic response. They also shared that the attack was imminent, scheduled to occur before December 1. This is the hallmark of a resilient society, ready to face an adaptive and intelligent adversary.

America should adopt a proactive, resilience-building posture, instead of waiting for the next threat to manifest itself. Resilience to terrorism requires a coherent, homogenous national strategy that will be translated into a dialogue designed to enlighten and educate the public about current terror threats, as well as providing people with information to enhance their collective efforts to reduce the risk. A resilient public becomes an asset, capable of processing threat information better, increasing their capacity to successfully respond to and recover from a man-enabled or natural disaster. The same tools and technology being effectively exploited by our adversaries can and should be harnessed as a Weapon of Mass Effect.

America must embark on a national resilience campaign, recruiting the public and private sectors. The inclusion of America’s schools, presents a logical focal point to implement such a national strategy. Schools provide the appropriate forum to discuss issues openly, question and highlight contradictions and explore alternative courses of action. Schools are also an excellent environment to begin to counter the networked-based radicalization being leveraged via the Internet.

Counter-terrorism requires national security professionals, educators, elected officials, industry, and others, engaging in a constant, intelligent awareness and action discourse with their constituents. In her announcement unveiling the NTAS, Secretary Napolitano stated, “Security is a shared responsibility, and we must work together to keep our nation safe from threats.” Responses to the transnational threat of terrorism present prospects we should harness not fear.

Counter-terrorism is a risk management proposition. We cannot prevent every attack or thwart every plot. We can, however, control our reaction. We should begin by controlling the message.

Erroll G. Southers is the Associate Director of the DHS National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events (CREATE) and adjunct professor of homeland security and public policy at the University of Southern California. He is also the Managing Director of Counter-Terrorism and Infrastructure Protection for the San Jose-based international security consulting firm TAL Global Corporation.

This article was originally published in Aviation Security International Magazine.