What need is there for a public role in the fight against terrorism?


In the wake of the terrorist activities of the past four days, one cannot underestimate the role that the public has played, and will need to play in the future, in countering the terrorist threat. This role has been re-enforced in speeches made by Peter Clarke, Head of the Counter-Terrorist Branch for the Metropolitan Police, and the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown.


During the Glasgow Airport attack it was reported that members of the public were at first trying to help what they assumed was the victim of a car crash. However, as it became apparent that this was a deliberate attack and the passenger began to douse himself in petrol, extremely brave members of the public attempted to apprehend the terrorist, and reports suggest that one managed to force the man to the ground. Obviously, nobody would recommend members of the public attempting to physically restrain individuals they suspect of being a terrorist. However, it does illustrate the way in which the public are prepared, and willing, to intervene in extreme situations.


On the afternoon of 29 June, after the two car bombs were discovered in central London, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke spoke of how the discovery reinforced ‘the need for the public to be alert’ and asked the public to report any information that could assist the police in their enquiries. Speaking on 1 July, in the aftermath of the events of the weekend, Gordon Brown praised the ‘magnificent work of the police and security service and the public for being vigilant’. Chief Constable Willie Rae of Strathclyde Police reiterated the importance the public has with supplying information and pictures to assist the investigation into the Glasgow Airport attack. It is true to say that in order to effectively mitigate the potential for bomb attacks succeeding, the public must be utilized as a supplementary source of intelligence.


Utilizing the public’s awareness of potential bombs was a key element of the Government’s response to the threat of the IRA during the 1980s and 1990s. This involved the use of public poster campaigns and public announcements in crowded areas such as transport hubs. These methods are still present today; however, recent events illustrate the need for the public to be increasingly aware of suspect packages, vehicles and the strange behaviour of individuals, and not be afraid to report them. In addition, this needs to be accompanied by public education on the common indicators to look for.


We must be extremely careful of how requests made by high-ranking officials to the public are framed, in order that they are received by society in the appropriate manner. There is a very fine line between soliciting the public to increase and maintain a high level of vigilance and creating a state where misguided individuals believe it is in their personal duty to protect citizens by going on the offensive and rooting out extremists. Such action could clearly increase the potential breakdown of social cohesion and marginalization of ethnic minorities. It is the role of the police and security services, and not the public, to act on intelligence.


It is important to take lessons from the Strathclyde Police response to the incident over the weekend. As well as commending the public’s assistance to the police with this matter, they did not glorify this. Chief Constable Willie Rae, during the initial press conference in Scotland, and subsequently Strathclyde Police Assistant Chief Constable (Community Safety) John Nielson both spoke out on how retribution towards the Asian and Muslim community would not be tolerated in any form. Nielson said ‘we recognize that there are those who would use these events as an opportunity to cause divisions between communities. Strathclyde Police will not tolerate any acts targeted against our minority communities committed in response to recent events. Such cases will be investigated robustly and the full weight of the law laid against them’.


There is, however, no doubt that the public are a vital source of information if we are to succeed in the fight against terrorism in this country. Their vigilance could be vital in stopping future attacks.


Dr Tobias Feakin, Head of Homeland Security Capabilities
and Mr Suraj Lakhani, Researcher, July 2007

Explore our related content