When terrorist warnings are not helpful

All the jokes about civil servants aside, governments around the world do have some useful functions. Governments have the bodies and funds to look into important matters and provide advice to their citizenry on a whole host of things. Whether we are talking about food safety (the recent romaine lettuce scare in North America is a good example) or storm warnings (we here in the Ottawa Valley are currently living through what is known as a ‘cold snowstorm: up to 20 cm of fresh snow have fallen since last night and the temperatures dipped to as low as -50 north of the capital which, by the way, was the coldest capital on Earth on Friday – colder by a degree than Ulaan Bator), our state apparatuses can serve an important function when it comes to what to be vigilant about.

Another thing that governments do is to provide overviews on terrorism. After all, state institutions like intelligence services and law enforcement agencies are the best placed to collect information on threats and thus they have the best handle on the actual level of danger. While these organisations normally do not provide details when they do issue alerts – much to the frustration of many – they really are the ones we should listen to if we want the most accurate assessment of what precautions, if any, we should take.

Sometimes, though, these warnings are so general as to be useless or, in a worst case scenario, spread panic. One such instance occurred a few days ago when the US issued a warning stating that both Boko Haram and the Islamic State in West Africa (ISWA) are planning to carry out attacks to disrupt this year’s Nigerian federal elections. That is indeed a responsibility of the US government and kudos to it for alerting its citizens in Nigeria of the possibility of attacks.

What followed next, however, is not so great. While there was no disclosure on specific attack venues, US citizens were warned to take ‘security precautions’ and avoid, get ready for it, “public places and government infrastructures…to include places of gathering such as markets, hotels, and malls, schools, hospitals, government facilities, places of worship, tourist locations, and transportation hubs, in addition to caution when walking and driving at night.”

Um is it just me or is this a bit of overkill (NO pun intended)? How useful is this list? By putting just about every possible public place on it does it actually say anything? I suppose that if Americans living in Nigeria were to take everything enumerated seriously they would not leave their houses in 2019 at all.

This kind of announcement strikes me as the same as those ridiculous catch-alls we see with products these days. We are inundated with warnings about what not to do with certain things that only a complete moron would have otherwise considered (a wheelbarrow had a sticker saying “not intended for highway use; a stroller advised parents to remove their child before folding the device; a thermometer label helpfully advised people not to use it orally after it was used rectally – EW!). I suppose there are legal reasons to ensure these admonitions but they do seem rather obvious, no?

The US warning is in the same ballpark as far as I am concerned. By warning against everything they are warning against nothing. I doubt that anyone would have grounds to sue if they or their loved ones were caught up in an attack and it turned out that the specific locale had not be listed. Then again, given the stupid lawsuits out there…

While this seems to be part of an effort to cover all bases, I know from my experience that these kinds of bulletins could be posted every single day in multiple places around the world. Intelligence agencies constantly collect threat information but it is often nebulous in nature. Furthermore, terrorist groups love to issue propaganda to strike fear in our hearts because it makes them look important (“Be afraid! Be very, very afraid!”). When we repeat their statements we contribute to the fear they seek to establish.

When it comes to Nigeria, anyone who has not been sleeping since the late 2000s knows that both Boko Haram and ISWA are very active and despite that nation’s counter terrorism and military efforts will continue to plan to kill and maim. That they would target this year’s elections is not a surprise either since Islamist extremists HATE democracy.

I don’t like this move by the US government. It is superfluous and contributes little to our appreciation of the threat. Zero terrorism is an impossible goal after all and we need to accept that. Paralysing dread is not a welcome result either. We need to be smart about the risk and, by living our lives as we want, not hand victory to the terrorists.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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