Why it is so hard to fathom terrorist threat levels

Well the last 24 hours have been interesting for me to say the least. It started when I binge-watched season 1 of Bodyguard on Netflix, a UK series on terrorism. Although there were some aspects I found a little far-fetched, I did enjoy the series and walked away with a profound sense of sadness that I am no longer in the counter-terrorism business. What struck me about the show, aside from the all-too-typical government use of bloody acronyms!, was the fact that the terrorist threat level kept rising as bombs went off and the Home Secretary was shot at. For the record, in the real world the terrorist threat level in the UK is currently at ‘Severe‘ (the second highest on a five-point scale).

Fast forward to today when I talked at length with a young man in New York working on a thesis about terrorism and public spaces and how to protect the latter from the former. Our chat gave me time to think a lot about how we see terrorism and what we do to prevent it, but more importantly how we communicate threat to the general population. We had a great exchange on how to educate people on threat actors and we both recognised that while more information is better than less – and accurate better than fake – some will react to this new data in less than optimal ways. For instance, if you tell them that someone wearing a bulky coat in strange circumstances – say on a hot day – could be a potential suicide bomber, they might call in all kinds of scenarios when these could be nothing more than a homeless person who only owns one coat.

(As an aside we talked about the so-called ‘See It, Say It’ programs that encourage the general public to report suspicious activity. Has anyone done an audit on how effective these efforts are? Are real threats called in? Are security forces snowed under with concerns like “my neighbour is acting strange”? I’d welcome anyone’s input on this.)

But back to threat levels. If the UK is at ‘Severe’ I assume this is based on what MI5, the Met and other partners have assessed based in large part on the intelligence they have gathered. I do not doubt their prowess or decision-making but I am curious as to the effect on the average Brit. After all, I am pretty sure that the threat level has been fairly high (probably no lower than ‘Substantial’- one rung below ‘Severe’) for the past 15 years or so. What is it like to live in this atmosphere? Furthermore, I imagine that the threat is higher in London (England’s not Ontario’s where I am from) or Manchester than in Looe or Grimsby (England’s not Ontario’s where my wife is from). But the level is national in scope, no?

At the same time, an attack IS possible in Looe or Grimsby, even if it is less likely than in larger urban centres. That is the paradox of terrorism. At any given time in any given place an act of terrorist violence is possible but not probable (unless we know that a cell is planning something). In other words, the probability of an attack in Looe is as close to zero as statistically possible but it will never reach zero (it can’t since we cannot rule out the possibility that someone will elect to carry out an act of terrorism there).

How then to react to this reality? By living life as you would in its absence. I do think that we need to heed warnings issued by competent authorities seriously and help them by providing relevant information when we come across it, but we cannot allow ourselves to be paralysed by very low-probability (albeit high-impact) events.

Then again you are free to have the threat level dictate your lifestyle and life choices. However, I for one will not cower in the face of terrorism. There is too much in life to enjoy without casting a nervous look backwards every five minutes. I will not give the terrorists that satisfaction.

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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