Engaging the Public in Mitigating the Impact of Terrorism


In November 2002 the United Kingdom's Home Office released a press statement advising the public of the possibility of a 'poisonous gas' or 'dirty bomb' attack. Within hours this message was withdrawn and replaced by a general terrorist attack alert. The following week, Prime Minister Blair delivered a speech in which he advised that the British public increase their vigilance against terrorist activity. The same week an audit reported that London's hospitals were unprepared to deal with mass CBRN casualties. Until then little had been said post-11 September 2001 by official sources to suggest anything other than the Government and its agencies were fully prepared and able to meet any threat. In fact, much had been made of the United Kingdom's peerless experience in successfully confronting terrorism over a 30-year period. However no attempt had been made to engage the public as stakeholders in their own security, as had been the case in response to Irish Republican terrorism. The lack of information from the Government has not passed without criticism, particularly from the business community, and while a number of working groups have been formed to develop response procedures there has been and remains a dearth of readily available practical advice.

It is an entirely reasonable assumption that the public in many parts of the world - perhaps even most parts of the world - face a threat from terrorism. In understanding the threat we should recognize that while most of us will never witness a terrorist attack or be direct victims, the majority of us are already indirect victims. The indirect effects of terrorism include increased levels of anxiety, a fall-off in high street spending in response to heightened alert states (some London retailers suggested a 10 per cent sales decline in the aftermath of pre- Christmas Metropolitan Police warnings), reduced air travel and extended check-in times, a significant downturn in tourism revenue and increased insurance premiums. Of those unfortunate few who become direct victims of terrorism, the overwhelming majority will be random victims who just happen to be in the locality of an attack. The few individuals who are directly targeted victims, provided that they or those responsible for their safety are aware of the potential threat, are currently best placed to participate in effective counter-attack security regimes. The low probability of being the victim of a terrorist attack does not however absolve us from contributing to our own welfare. We engage in a wide range of prevention and mitigation measures relating to fire, traffic accidents, crime and disease not because we anticipate becoming victims but because if we do, the consequences are potentially individually or collectively catastrophic. To manage individual and collective concerns regarding the terrorist threat requires an honest appraisal of the severity of the threat coupled with self-help preventive and effect mitigation advice.

Threat Inoculation

Preparing the public for the possibility of terrorist attacks gathered pace when 'senior Whitehall sources' briefed the media on 18 December 2002 to the effect that:

  • Al Qa'ida cell activity is underway in the United Kingdom
  • It is possible that one of these cells will succeed in mounting an attack
  • The threat is high and likely to increase
  • The threat is long term
  • Probable attacks include chemical and high explosive payloads
  • Neither a 'dirty' bomb nor smallpox attack is anticipated
  • Body bags, vaccines and antibiotics have been stockpiled
  • National Resilience programmes for decontamination, evacuation and mass casualty treatment are being developed
  • A warning broadcasting system is being developed
  • Exercises are taking place.

The threat inoculation process (the preparation of the population for bad news) continued with the Metropolitan Police pre-Christmas warning of a heightened threat from both Irish and Al Qa'ida terrorism. It followed with both the Prime Minister's New Year message, which included the fact that 100 per cent security against an attack is not possible, and the announcement of the introduction of legislation to allow the police to enforce area isolation cordons. What is still lacking is advice to the public on how it may contribute to its own safety and security, although it has been reported that the Government's Chief Medical Officer will be providing advice on self-help measures to mitigate the effect of a chemical attack.

UK Experience

Recent UK experience relates to the response to Irish Republican and Loyalist terrorism. Of the terrorist groups confronted the one that posed the greatest threat was the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA). The form of terrorism practised by PIRA may be classified as coercive terrorism, the use of terror to coerce the authorities into making concessions toward what the terrorists perceive as a (at least) partially realizable objective (the Good Friday Agreement has shown this to be correct in the case of PIRA).

In the 1970s, PIRA mounted indiscriminate bomb attacks against the public. As the organization refined its tactics to maximize impact while minimizing negative publicity in the key support heartland of the United States, it increasingly sought to minimize random civilian casualties. One of the mechanisms used to achieve this was the coded warning, which although at times ambiguous or late, nevertheless facilitated timely evacuation or bomb disposal action on a number of occasions. Other characteristics of the PIRA campaign that reduced their destructive potential was the use of conventional weapons (explosive payloads and firearms) with relatively localized effects and the absence of a suicide attacker culture. The agencies pitted against PIRA had the benefit of good intelligence, thirty years of experience, a wellpractised and slick emergency response and the engagement of the public. Public involvement included the reporting of suspicious activity or items, self-help protective security regimes and blasteffect mitigation measures.

Catastrophic Terrorism

At the opposite end of the spectrum to coercive terrorism is catastrophic terrorism where the primary objective is to maximize both the number of victims, physical and psychological, and the level of destruction. This is achieved by targeting sites of congregation and national identity, symbols of economic and military power, critical infrastructure, transport and energy. The weapons of choice to date have been high explosives and suicide attackers. Although the authorities in the United States have not yet identified the perpetrator of the Anthrax attacks, it seems unlikely that it was Al Qa'ida. There is, however, considerable evidence demonstrating that they aspire to obtain and use CBRN payloads.

The characteristics of catastrophic terrorism and the UK response that differs from those of Irish coercive terrorism, include:


  • Maximum civilian victims
  • Suicide attackers
  • No warnings
  • No constraints including preparedness to use CBRN weapons
  • Possibility of absence of incident site with CBR weapons
  • Non negotiable position
  • Substantial target array

  • Limited intelligence penetration
  • Limited resources
  • Lack of linkage between crisis and consequence response
  • Lack of experience of catastrophic terrorism
  • Lack of engagement of the public

Public Engagement

The argument most usually proffered for nonengagement of the public is not wishing to cause panic and the sensitivity of information. History suggests that the public is, in fact, extremely adept at handling bad news without panicking provided that information relating to threats is tempered with the demonstration that all reasonable preventive and response measures have been initiated and that selfhelp advice is being offered. The public fall into three broad categories, those that assume that the government has all bases covered, those that believe there is nothing that they themselves can do to assist their own security and safety and those that are extremely concerned about the seeming lack of government direction and advice. Principally amongst those who articulate concern are members of the business community who have become increasingly alarmed at the apparent lack of progress during the sixteen months since 11 September 2001. Measures that might be implemented to engage individuals and the collective business element of the public include the following:


  • Re-visiting the measures implemented during the PIRA campaign
  • Encouraging a greater awareness of work, leisure and domestic environment and connecting routes so that the 'out of place' becomes immediately apparent
  • Advice on the characteristics of terrorist weapons
  • Advice on signs and symptoms of payload release
  • Advice on how to avoid becoming a victim
  • Advice on victim self-help 'immediate action' measures
  • Demonstration of the official response capability
  • Reassurance that threats are survivable
  • Timely communication of threats and incidents
  • Honesty regarding threats and response capability

  • Updating of 'Bombs: Protecting People and Property' to include countering CBR payload effects
  • Advice on protective security including suicide attacker threats
  • Advice on detection and protective equipment and procedures
  • Access to information
  • Regular liaison and workshops


There is little doubt that we face an increased level and ferocity of terrorist activity. While the UK has considerable experience of dealing with Irish (coercive) terrorism we have no experience of responding to catastrophic terrorism. Both the threat from and response to catastrophic terrorism dictate significant capability development including engagement of the public. The post-11 September message from 'officialdom' had been that the UK was well prepared to deal with any attack. However, since November 2002 the message has changed to one of 'be vigilant and prepared for a potentially catastrophic attack'. This advice, while welcome, has not been accompanied by information on self-help measures including deterrence, avoidance and effect mitigation. Surviving a potential or actual catastrophic attack is best achieved by all components of a nation working together in a coherent manner. Recent efforts by the Government to make more threat information available (such as recent disclosures about a Ricin discovery in north London) should be developed to include advice on what to do. The UK has survived catastrophes in the past and will do so in the future; but to minimize the impact of potentially catastrophic terrorism, and expedite recovery from its effects, it is essential that the public be fully engaged.

Garth Whitty is Head of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience programme

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