Information and terrorism: from highway to boundary

Conflict takes place across boundaries and success crucially depends on commanders having sufficient understanding to take the right decisions, in enough time to make a difference.

Often the boundaries can be physical, a disputed international border perhaps, or they can be defined by the front lines of troops in defensive positions. Success in such cases depends on commanders and decision makers having a rapid grasp of what is going on, who is doing what, of where things have just happened and where they will happen next.

Commanders who have the responsibilities of countering terrorism cannot depend on the certainties of physical place or well-defined boundaries. Their understanding is shaped differently and anything that attacks their understanding diminishes their ability to respond in a timely and accurate way. In consequence, they could unwittingly be contributing to the terrorists' success.

In the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US and the London attacks in July 2005, commanders and decision makers were developing their understanding across a boundary that was defined by information. The sequence of events in London as reported at the time, and as now understood, illustrates the way in which that understanding is formed, shifts and reforms. The comparison between what was being reported and what had actually happened shows that even in the age of the internet, commanders and decision makers can find themselves as confused as their predecessors.

One of the most important differences is that today with instant news reporting we can all follow the unfolding story. For this analysis, it is possible to use the reports of the BBC breaking news service, which has established a reputation for accurate, quick summaries of what is being said and reported. A sample of emails from April to July 2005 shows that breaking news alerts are consistently sent within 10 minutes of the report to which they refer, and therefore give an accurate picture of the developing analysis on which situational awareness is based during the period in which commanders and decision makers have to respond effectively and precisely.

The incidents in London of 7 July (in which 56 people lost their lives), 21 July (in which no one was killed) and 22 July (in which a Metropolitan Police team shot dead a man who was not connected to the terrorist attacks) give us an indication of the uncomfortable realities.

The 7 July attacks will be recorded by history to be four separate explosions, three of which happened in different London Underground stations at 0850, with the fourth device exploding on a bus 57 minutes later. Reports on the day in real time were not as clear.

Abnormal events

The first news service indication of something abnormal on Thursday 7 July was a report at 0943 that tube stations in London were being "evacuated after reports of a loud bang near Liverpool Street Station, which may be due to a power surge". There was no police report until 1032, when multiple explosions were confirmed, with "several hurt in major incidents" in unspecified Underground stations and "a blast on a bus in Tavistock Place". The first casualty report was at 1148, three hours after the Underground explosions, which said that two people had been killed at Aldgate East. In the battle for information and during the period in which a precise response has to be matched to the circumstances, the 7 July reports had the merit of not embellishing or exaggerating what was going on. They did not, however, give a clear and accurate picture.

By 1300 the news media were concentrating on the story of the London attacks. Much was being said on television and radio. The Washington Post alert service summarised the situation with a 0844 breakfast time report (1344 GMT) that at least three people had died with an unspecified number of explosions "hitting subway stations, subway carriages in the Underground and several double-decker buses".

A few minutes later G8 leaders meeting in Edinburgh condemned the bombings and vowed to defeat terror. These two reports are significant: it is likely that the terrorists chose 7 July to make their attacks at that time because of the G8 summit that day. At the time that the G8 leaders and the UN Secretary General were before the microphones and cameras in Scotland, it was still not clear what had happened five hours earlier in London, but enough was known for their statement to be made.

Summarising what was known about the attacks, the BBC Newsnight team sent their daily newsletter at 1714. This offers a reliable picture as understood at the time over eight hours after the explosions. The Newsnight email reported 33 dead in the three Underground attacks, with an unknown number on the bus. As a summary the number and location of explosions was being accurately reported. Timings were a different matter. Of the three underground attacks, now all known to have been at 0850, only the explosion at Liverpool Street was being accurately reported. The Russell Square attack was reported as 0856 and the Edgware Road attack as 0917. The bus attack was correctly reported as 0947. Casualty numbers were moving towards the actual number.

Casualty reports reflected the known increase in the number of people killed. At 1817 on the day of the attacks 37 deaths were reported. By 1116 the following morning "more than 50 fatalities" were reported, with the overnight increase being due to the number who died in the bus explosion. We now know that 14 of the dead were killed in the bus explosion and 42 in the Underground bombs. This approach and increase in casualty estimates was in contrast to the experience on 11 September 2001 when initial estimates of around 20,000 were reduced substantially over the following weeks. In London, as in New York, the problems of identifying the dead meant a considerable delay. Family and friends of those who are now known to have died were searching for them using websites and impromptu press conferences, as well as the more traditional posters. The first 7 July London bomb victim was not reported identified until Monday 11 July, at 0912.

So even at the end of a day of unprecedented media attention and with various on- and off-the-record police and ministerial briefings it was still not possible to say what had happened. Through the mechanism of the most reliable reporting agencies, we can see that reports moved gradually towards the facts as subsequently confirmed but with an important time lag.

Also on 22 July, at 1000 a man was shot in a London Underground train at Stockwell station. The BBC breaking news service reported the incident at 1057. We now know that he was not connected to the terrorist attacks but that he had been under surveillance since leaving a block of flats that had been traced to the terrorists, and when challenged had run into Stockwell station where he was caught and shot in a train. The report of his name, his Brazilian nationality and that he had been shot in error came the day after his death at 2145 on the evening of Saturday 23 July. The consequences of this error have still to be assessed but it is already clear that it has caused significant problems in the relationship between police and Muslim representatives. Internationally, the appearance of the Brazilian foreign minister in London the next day caused the British government further difficulty. This dimension complicates the delay in accurate reporting and masks the understanding of the legal dimension, which will rest entirely on the facts of the case.

Accurate reporting of the developing picture during the London attacks gives us a feel for the imperfect understanding being built in the minds of commanders and decision makers. There are many new dimensions to the July 2005 London attacks, not least the abundance of mobile phone pictures. Even the Times website has been asking readers to send their SMS pictures and the BBC news reports end in a web-based email form asking for reports from those involved. We are all reporters now.

The enduring element of command is rapid and accurate understanding. The evidence from the London attacks is that a new form of situational awareness is required, one that goes beyond the well-planned and exercised response of the emergency services and concentrates instead on improving the resilience and capability of the most important of the terrorists' targets: the minds of the decision makers themselves. Information has become the most prominent of boundaries in a conflict situation.

Philip Fricker is a defence and security analyst.

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