Countering terror: learning from complex disasters

Although multiple threats of manmade origin are increasing, whether terrorism or complex disasters (a mixture of technological and natural disasters), there seems to be considerable reluctance among states to support the creation of new institutional arrangements. Problems of duplication are regarded as inevitable.

At least as difficult as the problem of creating new intergovernmental organisations for counter-terrorism and disaster reduction is the problem of integrating these considerations into the work of existing institutions, not to mention the development of a coherent multisectoral and interdisciplinary approach to these threats and their consequences.

The functional similarities between disaster reduction and counter-terrorism are also evident. When considering the post-disaster period, it has become clear that this phase is especially propitious for the introduction of disaster mitigation initiatives in national planning structures. Bearing in mind the aftermath of 11 September 2001, this has also been the case with counter-terrorism in the Nordic countries, which had previously hesitated to earmark sufficient resources for private-public counter-terrorism initiatives. Needless to say, the primary responsibility for all aspects of counter-terrorism rests with national governments. As in the case of disaster mitigation, the success of counter-terrorism is dependent upon five prerequisites:

sustained awareness;

political will;

secure financing;

human resource development; and

strengthened institutional capabilities.
A government’s strong political will, its determination to reduce vulnerability to terrorist strikes and its willingness to commit resources for the anticipated benefits are the most important requisites.

It is obvious that the planning and implementation of a collective counter-terrorism strategy pose

serious (and therefore politically rather sensitive) challenges because they involve the creation of

common rules, guidelines and institutions that impinge heavily on the domestic structures and organisation of states. However, as in the case of global disaster management, the functions of intergovernmental organisations and interstate agreements are only one aspect of counter-terrorism.

An important facet of counter-terrorism lies at the national level; in making the public aware of threats, for example, and by developing domestic structures to deal with them if they occur, just as individual governments can mitigate disasters by adopting and enforcing appropriate building codes.

Once again, as in case of disaster reduction, international action for counter-terrorism is not limited to formal inter-state agreements or to the activities of intergovernmental and international organisations. Public attitudes and the activities of non-governmental organisations play an important role in determining how ‘terrorism’ and ‘counter-terrorism’ are defined and dealt with by governments and international bodies.

Lessons learned from complex disasters

As we have seen in the evolution of disaster-reduction policies, any counter-terrorism programme based on cohesive intergovernmental co-operation must be formulated alongside and be compatible with, if not supportive of, other national policies (for example, social, economic, military and strategic policies). Drawing on our experiences in preventing complex disasters, the following challenges to combat terrorism can be summarised as follows:

To increase public concern over terrorism, particularly its prevention. The major share of the responsibility for increasing public concern over terrorism goes to the media networks, which are increasingly better equipped to broadcast live reports of terrorist strikes and their often devastating socio-economic impacts. Here, we need to focus on proactive dialogue with mass-communication systems, which are social institutions in their own right, having their own values and priorities of what is and is not ‘newsworthy’.

To secure greater availability of reliable data. Today, much more up-to-date intelligence material is available than 10 years ago. Of utmost importance for the reliable dissemination of data has been the rapid development of both human and technical intelligence.
However, several problems remain, such as the unequal penetration of Internet access around the world. In addition, links between various information providers are not sufficient. Information available within one administrative branch is not properly available to another. The experiences and expertise of different fields are not fully exploited when creating early warning systems or organising preventive operations.

To encourage scientific co-operation in the cause of counter-terrorism. Traditionally, complex disaster-reduction issues have dominated the research agendas of various scientific disciplines. As general awareness of the socio-economic impacts of terrorism has increased, there has been a mounting need to develop methods appropriate to the analysis of terrorism.
Counter-terrorism, whether at the intergovernmental or national level, entails such a broad array of cross-cutting and inter-related aspects that they should be viewed from multidisciplinary point of view, based on a solid theoretical framework drawing on both social and technical sciences.

To recognise the political and economic impacts of terrorism. Terrorism usually has both economic and socio-political impacts that need to be assessed and addressed in conjunction. Terrorist attacks cost those who perpetrate them a fraction of the expenses of those defending against them. On the other hand, as direct losses and disruptions caused both by disasters and terrorist strikes continue to grow, disaster-reduction methods (early warning, building codes, insurance and re-insurance) are often inadequately considered in development decisions, resulting in increasing insured and uninsured economic losses.
Community leaders are also finding that they lack strategies for dealing with the complex politically and emotionally charged environment after a disaster or terrorist strike occurs. This is where politics step in. Terrorism challenges political leadership when it generates socio-economic losses (such as food shortages, loss of income and housing or diseases), producing domestic upheavals and refugees.

To refine the private and public dimensions of counter-terrorism. It has become evident that coherent and interrelated private-public co-operation is necessary for successful and continuous counter-terrorism initiatives. However, the prerequisite is that those organisations that are engaged in these initiatives and other essential counter-terrorism policies are identified and formulated clearly. This refinement process should be continuous, as terrorism as well as disasters are becoming more complex and the division of labour between intergovernmental, governmental and non-governmental actors will be increasingly intertwined.

To formulate new appropriate models of decision making in complex, multi-goal, value-based situations. There is an urgent need to develop both horizontal and vertical decision-making procedures to mitigate new cross-sectoral and unpredictable threats such as bio- and aviation terrorism. The common goal should be to provide decision-makers (in co-operation with civil societies, academics, and industry) with a better preparedness to find pre-emptive solutions as well as to minimise the threats when a terrorist strikes. In these cases, the following aspects of decision-making procedures are tested:

a government’s ability to constructively assist its disaster-afflicted people;

a government’s continuous interest in rendering equal assistance to afflicted people both in non-government and government-held areas; and

a government’s ability, through its own preventive and mitigatory actions, to prevent post-disaster losses that may generate more refugees and the mass displacement of people.

To harmonise intelligence schemes and contribute to trans-national policy initiatives. Since neither terrorism nor complex disasters respect borders, it should become clear that a single nation is unable to carry out counter-terrorism policies successfully on its own. No single nation can gather enough intelligence to effectively fight a worldwide terrorist network, no matter how adept its intelligence organisation.
Intergovernmental co-operation should be seen as a tool to combat terrorism, not as a threat to national sovereignty and as interference to domestic policymaking. While positive integrative processes are in progress in the West, one has to pay increasing attention to those characteristics that might create major obstacles to the successful and genuine integration of ‘transition’ countries, particularly Russia and China, into intergovernmental operations for counter-terrorism. These threats are not merely problems internal to these countries; they also constitute existing and potential problems for other countries. The strategy must be comprehensive, long-term and creative, rather than dealing with terrorist threats as isolated problems that are the responsibility merely of sectoral officials and administrative organs.

To differentiate between actions requiring an immediate political or military response and long-term consequences that require a measured diplomatic response. In particular, collective international counter-terrorism poses a severe and sensitive challenge for diplomacy, because it involves the creation of rules and institutions that embody notions of shared responsibilities and shared duties that impinge very heavily on domestic national structures and organisations. Possible immediate political-military responses to terrorism should be identified, prepared and implemented effectively without bureaucratic delays — for instance,
continuous training of police and rapid reaction forces, efficient border monitoring and the allocation of appropriate resources.

While the spectre of terrorism hangs over us, a surprising amount can be done about it. The words spoken by an ancient Roman sage should run like a red line through our thinking on this issue: "A measure of a civilisation is its capacity to handle disaster."

Dr Timo Hellenberg is an expert on civil protection and emergency management. He is a former special advisor to the Prime Minister and currently heading the Northern Dimension Advisory Network, based at the Aleksanteri Institute of the University of Helsinki.


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