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Terrorism is a CONTEST

When the issue is counter-terrorism, police and security forces can be superbly well-prepared and trained, but without the vigilance and support of our communities, we will not see success. Intelligence is the main weapon we have against terrorism. However, we cannot rely solely on the intelligence reports of our own officers. We need to educate our communities and businesses in a similar way to that of our officers. Only by creating a vigilant public can we spread the net of awareness and create a hostile environment for the terrorist.

This article is being written on the one-year anniversary of the day London was rocked by the 7/7 attacks. The British media is full of reports of the anniversary of the attacks. Interviews with Londoners who were involved on the day are constantly being aired. There is one report that, for me, captures the spirit of what we should be aiming to achieve.

A 37-year-old Cypriot was asked on the BBC News if he had changed his routine as a result of the attacks on 7/7. He replied that he had lived all his life in London. He had grown up with IRA bombs at Harrods and Bishopsgate. He remembers the day a homophobic racist blew up a pub in Soho. He is aware of the continuing threat from international terrorism.

He finished his reply by saying, “This is London. You don’t worry about it. You get on with your life. Of course, you remain vigilant and you are always aware, but that is life.” He understands that by being alert to the world around him, he can remain safe. He does not live in fear. He is not a victim. Terrorists will never defeat that mindset. What is more, that mindset will defeat terrorism. He has an awareness of terrorism as a continuing fact of life.

This is the overarching aim of the Policing Serious Incidents (PSI) course that is conducted in Hertfordshire Constabulary. “To create an awareness of terrorism as a continuing fact of life.”

This should be a duty of all police officers, whenever we have dealings with our communities or local businesses or indeed our partner agencies. It is not about creating a state of fear, but rather a gentle reminder that terrorism has not gone away.

The 9/11 attacks are almost exactly five years behind us. It is difficult to promote the importance of counter-terrorism to administrators and budget holders who have targets and other priorities. And that is just in the police service! Imagine how difficult it is to do this when your core business is not protecting life and property. That is the situation our communities find themselves. It is not easy to convince them that counter-terrorism is a priority, but we have to keep trying.

The British government has developed the strategy, CONTEST. And no, CONTEST is not an acronym. It is a state of mind. This strategy identifies four main areas, or pillars to detect, disrupt or deter terrorists. We have seen how intelligence is our main weapon in detecting terrorism. However, with the mass casualty spectaculars favored by groups influenced by Osama bin Laden, disruption and deterrence are equally important to save large numbers of lives.


The first pillar is “prepare.” Success under this strategy will be achieved if communities are sufficiently prepared for the likelihood of terrorist attack. This includes training our own officers and assisting businesses to create business continuity plans and improve their target hardening.


The second pillar is “prevent.” Through liaison and planning with community partners, wherever possible, reduce or prevent the impact. This is particularly relevant in preventing the radicalization of young Muslims. It is vital that the Muslim community in particular recognize and prevent extremists preaching a warped message of Islam and perverting its true meaning.


The third pillar is “protect.” This involves the use of intelligence and ongoing policing operations, the use of proactive search, robust physical security at vulnerable locations, and educating our partners. For example, Operation Griffin in the city of London was set up to brief and train the vast number of private security operatives. All these measures help to protect our communities.


The fourth pillar is “pursue.” If a terrorist attack occurs, the perpetrators will be identified, pursued and brought to justice. Exercise Vigilant is helping Hertfordshire Constabulary to achieve a measurable success in the CONTEST strategy. As part of the exercise, the student officers plan a terrorist attack on specified business locations in their local areas. When they present their plans to the other officers on the training course, representatives of the relevant businesses are invited.

It can be a sobering experience for a security manager to attend a presentation given by a group of relatively inexperienced police officers when they describe in great detail the inadequacies of that location’s security. That is the hook that attracts their participation in this exercise; it is then relatively simple to ensure they are educated in terrorist techniques and tactics.

At the conclusion of the presentation, the various managers have seen their CCTV locations, security routines, and controlled access photographed, breached and laid bare. It is a salutary lesson for them. The opportunity to question officers on the finer points of the contents of their presentation is always taken. The mangers often learn just how much confidential information they leak onto the Internet!

They benefit greatly by the experience, and many of them use it as a free security survey, some of them requesting participation at a future date in order to assess whether improvements are effective. One participating company wrote to me to say, “Following the debrief on your exercise, we installed a barrier controlling vehicle access to our Stevenage site, and we introduced cameras at the rear of our buildings.”

One of the main benefits of Exercise Vigilant is that of liaison. Police officers are actually talking to businesses and working in partnership. Our communities are becoming more aware of terrorism as a continuing fact of life. They are recognizing pre-incident indicators and the vulnerability of precursor chemicals. This is vital to prevent future attacks.

Here is one example of a foiled attack that was because of the vigilance of our community. A manager of a self-storage facility became suspicious because a group of young men were storing a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at his facility. He reported this to the police, which led to eight men being arrested in raids around the southeast of England in March this year. This investigation is ongoing and is connected to international terrorism.

Jim Dowle has worked as an operational police officer for 16 years, including for a tactical firearms team, as a Close protection officer and as a sniper for more than 10 years. He is now working as a training sergeant at the force headquarters. His department, the Hertfordshire Constabulary, borders the north of London and has about 3,900 employees. He can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Aug 2006

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