Crossing the divide

Project Unicorn was set up in early 2003. Its initial remit appeared simple enough: to look at ways of linking London's commercial sector with the counter-terrorism (CT) efforts of the UK capital's police and security forces. It was an idea that at first glance seemed highly logical. The police, in common with so many other public sector services, are under-resourced and overstretched. The untapped private sector must offer more funding, better technology, and a wider pool of personnel and expertise to draw upon. Given the new type of threat, with its mix of recognisable forms of terrorism and its new spectacular and catastrophic dimensions, with every sector being a potential target, it would be expected that every sector has something to contribute.

A new threat?

The possibility of terrorist attack is not new to London. It has been the target of Irish terrorism since the 1880s, with prolonged campaigns from the late 1960s onwards. Tracing a path from Canary Wharf to Downing Street to Hyde Park along the sites of major terrorist attacks reveals how often and how deeply London has been affected by terrorism. The UK's long experience of countering and recovering from terrorist attacks has a contradictory twofold effect on current CT efforts. Beneficially, it means there is an existing framework within government that is already familiar with the effects of terrorism. In the US, a major reshuffling of government was required to create a Homeland Security Department which could draw together existing expertise, integrate it into a cohesive whole and provide a single point of contact for the millions of Americans frightened by the new, post-11 September world. The UK has responded within an existing and relatively unchanged framework. The Home Office takes the lead on homeland defence, the protection of the critical national infrastructure and the provision of domestic security across a range of threats.

On the other hand, however, the experience of Irish terrorism has bred complacency about how the UK would handle a catastrophic attack. The Irish Republican Army and its various offshoots have an identifiable agenda and engage (to a degree) in political dialogue. Sections of the government have years, if not decades, of experience arising from Northern Ireland engagements. Suicide bombers are an altogether different kind of entity. These 'human bombs' illustrate a cluster of new factors: the growing importance of non-state actors on the world stage; fluid organisational patterns that bypass traditional hierarchical paradigms; and the coexistence of high-tech and low-tech societies. Hybridisation and adaptability are the defining characteristics of the new terrorists, whatever the target may be.

A living city

The US journalist and commentator HL Mencken (1880-1956) once wrote that "for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong" - so it proved with early attempts to categorise London's stakeholders into two tidy blocs marked 'public' and 'private'. Project Unicorn's mapping exercise rapidly expanded beyond its initial remit. London as a national asset is worth £118 billion (US$196.5bn) per annum and accounts for 18% of the UK's gross domestic product. The European headquarters of 33% of the world's largest companies and 65% of the Fortune 500 companies are situated in London. The UK capital is also the largest centre of Islamic banking outside the Middle East and has a thriving multi-ethnic business community. In addition to its commercial value, London is the seat of government for the UK and takes a national lead in policymaking, planning and policing initiatives. The 'New London' campaign, in combination with Mayor Ken Livingstone's attempts to create user-friendly public sites for the arts and music, has injected the capital with life, colour and celebration. However, it has also provided potential new target groups for terrorist attack.

Project Unicorn's attempts to 'take the pulse of London' revealed myriad public, private, semi-public, commercial and hybrid groupings, all with a stake in the future of London. But, the very characteristics that make London a thriving capital city - its openness to commerce, tourism, and multiple economic and social groups - are the same characteristics that make it vulnerable to terrorist attack. Project Unicorn's focus on London is the first time that a global capital has been used as a laboratory for this kind of cross-cutting CT analysis.

A change to the CT environment

Perceptions of vulnerability and resilience are intimately tied to the belief that the government has 'ownership' of national security and the resources necessary to protect the citizenry in the event of a catastrophic attack. Project Unicorn's first task was to understand the role of the government in the CT effort. However, providing a simplified description of what is already happening in government proved immensely complicated. All sectors of the government are involved in CT, either as part of the response or in the pre-planning stage. In the final analysis, the Home Office is in charge of the UK's terrorism response, with the Civil Contingency Secretariat enshrining it in legislation; incorporating provisions both for emergency planning and for invoking emergency powers if needed.

Attempts to organise the government for the war against terrorism have underlined two shortcomings. The first is in those areas where different levels of government should fuse together and reflects continuing problems of jurisdiction, multi-agency co-ordination and funding. Despite the existence of a framework and practices drawn from decades of dealing with Irish terrorism, elements of the government continue to work in isolation. Overall cohesiveness is difficult to identify and government guidance remains inaccessible to many in the commercial sector. The second shortcoming is more practical, involving the effect of multiple demands on existing levels of security equipment and training, the need to enhance skills necessary to adapt existing technology to different circumstances, and undermanning in important areas.

The private sector can offer solutions to some of these problems. It is well placed to fund research and development in technologies such as face-recognition software and communication or tracking systems. At a less tangible level, private companies may have extensive experience in integrating diverse working systems or advising on disaster recovery from a commercial perspective. However, problems in existing state systems may lead to the misplaced view that the private sector has addressed CT, risk and vulnerability in effective and cost efficient ways. In fact, many commercial entities struggle to develop affordable ways of mastering risk and countering security threats. Other companies simply disregard the need for security or are unable to find credible information they can use to address it.

In the new security environment post-11 September 2001, managing risk has become a two-part process, with the deployment of visible and reassuring security measures (such as closed-circuit television and perimeter security) and the invisible web of planning, monitoring, training, alliance building and calibrating that lies behind them. Project Unicorn identified five underlying currents that shape the unfolding of CT strategies across the public and private sectors.

· The emergence of the domestic private security industry (PSI) is increasingly important in the distribution of security and the delivery of resilience. The PSI is undergoing a step change as new, regulatory regimes are brought in by the Security Industry Authority. The PSI potentially offers a range of skills and personnel to the CT effort. The role of Security Officers as 'bolt-ons' to existing policing efforts is an area meriting further exploration. The PSI is a young, fragmented industry that has yet to develop a representative voice. The new regulatory regime, as well as training and benchmarking initiatives, will allow commercial or government clients to distinguish between the highly skilled elements of the PSI and those that are unlikely to contribute to the CT effort.

· Changes to policing that influence how it is carried out and received by the public. The need to increase police resources has led to the concept of a wider police family that would draw in a new range of skills and personnel. As terrorism and crime grow in sophistication, the means of countering them demand new skills such as languages, business acumen and asset-tracing expertise. The expansion of the police family, together with the Metropolitan Police's Diversity Strategy, pushes the police presence into communities that have not always enjoyed working relationships with the police services.

· The public-private partnerships, often controversial in other sectors such as transport or health, have become increasingly important within traditional areas of defence. Public-private partnerships redistribute the pressures on resources that CT imposes and offer alternative ways of working.

· Intelligence, information and advice - in security analysis generally, there is often a tendency to equate information with intelligence and to fall back on Cold War paradigms about the 'need to know'. The knowledge economy and the post-globalisation environment have changed the way that information, trade, finance and intellectual capital flows across borders. As a result, distinctions exist between information as 'intelligence' and information as a problem-solving or planning tool. An additional factor is the ownership of information: sections of the private sector now own and work with information that would once have been seen as part of the critical national infrastructure.

· Communication - the current government policy is to 'alert but not alarm' regarding pre-incident communication. For commercial entities that conduct business in a post-globalised, interconnected world, this policy is almost universally viewed as outdated. In addition, technological advances such as the Internet or satellite telecommunications bypass traditional methods of gathering or disseminating news. Pager alerts, emails, user groups and satellite news channels have altered the individual's access to and use of information and have influenced his or her expectations of the media. This directly affects the value of CT information and the mechanisms by which it is disseminated.

From the outset, Project Unicorn saw the results of its work as a public good. Drawing together expertise and resources from the public and private sectors in the fight against terrorism could create confusion. On the other hand, it holds open the possibility of emerging, responsive collaborations and informed reassurance.

Mariyam Hasham is one of the three permanent members of the Project Unicorn team


Explore our related content