This article first appeared in edited form on June 8th, 2017 in The New Daily here.
I am getting used to the sirens of police and ambulance vehicles keeping me awake at night. This is because I live only a kilometre or so from the last two terrorist attacks in London.
I was also in Liverpool Street station about to board a tube when the 7/7 bombings took place in 2005. On the 9th of February 1996, I was around the corner when the IRA set off their huge bomb in Canary Wharf, London.
I have been less than a kilometre from four terrorist attacks in London.
In Islamabad, while I worked there for the United Nations, the windows of my apartment shook when, in 2008, terrorists threw a hand-grenade into the Italian restaurant where I was about to go to for dinner.
I know terrorism well. I have seen its impacts and consequences. I have felt the shock waves of its bombs. I have spoken to people who have been tempted to cross into the path of terrorism (see Lessons From A Would-be Suicide Bomber, here).
I know terrorism better than most, but not as well as some. I have written and spoken on terrorism and counter-terrorism for some time. Consequently I have a view on how we defeat this menace, but it will not be easy.
My main arguments run this way:
We need to embrace an alliance with ‘moderate’ and ‘normal’ people of Islamic faith and understand that they are our most powerful ally to counter extremism. However, at times ‘we’ often undermine the moderate and normal people of Islamic faith, when our community choses incendiary and inflammatory discourse, in place of an embracing language.
This embracing part is ‘getting the ‘us’ v ‘them’ concentric circles right’. I spoke about the ‘us’ v ‘them’ on Australian national television, on ABC’s Q and A, following the Paris attacks, here.
Following Q and A the Islamic Council of Victoria asked me to speak on concrete steps they could consider to defeat terrorism. I listed three steps to defeat terror (see my speech here).
These three steps are concurrent and sometimes in conflict, requiring a fine balance. The three steps are:
- Make life worth living for the people who may be tempted to ‘take a short-cut to god’. This is hard and takes a long-term focus on economic growth, inclusiveness and extremely careful public dialogue.
- Counter the extremists’ messages that say ‘killing people provides a short-cut to heaven’. This has a strong education and theological side that really can only be done by other people of deep religious faith or knowledge.
- Have a strong security apparatus to respond to people who still decide they want to kill people in a mistaken belief that they will gain a ‘short-cut to heaven’.
Point one and point three are often in conflict, with the language of security and the language of inclusiveness often in conflict.
However, allow me to say a couple of words about point three, security, following the latest attack on London Bridge.
Firstly, Britain has an incredibly well trained, well organised and incredibly effective response. Police officers were on the ground within two minutes. For this they must be congratulated.
Secondly, Britain was on high alert after Manchester, with urgent reviews and focus on searching for potential new terror attacks, over the past couple of weeks.
Thirdly, last night’s attack was planned, involved multiple perpetrators and would have taken some time to organise.
Fourthly, either the perpetrators had incredible communications discipline to make them effectively undetectable, or, there was a failing in intelligence gathering. Both options are frightening.
Intelligence failings will, without doubt, be examined in detail and highlights how hard the third step (security) in counter terrorism is to achieve. It is well known in intelligence circles that the Security forces need to be lucky all the time. The terrorists only need to be lucky once.
The third step, security, happens only after people have decided they will or have launched an attack. Security is our ‘last line’ of defence. Often though we talk of security as if it were to be our ‘first line’ of defence.
The first line of defence is not stopping people who are attacking. The first line of defence is stopping people wanting to attack in the first place. That is step one and step two of my three step process – education and inclusiveness.
While I recognise that steps one and two are hard, offer no easy headline nor a politician’s photo opportunity, these first two steps are vital. The great risk as I see it is, in our community, when an attack happens, we focus on step three – security. We focus on our last line of defence at the cost of our first line of defence.
When an attack happens, our community is tempted to forget steps one and two; the need to reach out, economically empower and educate vulnerable people with inclusive language.
In the light of the latest attacks, while we can and must examine security, let’s not forget steps one and two.
Let’s not forget who is the ‘us’ and who is the ‘them’ as we try and defeat terror.