The UK is one of the European countries that have been affected by terrorism for decades. It is also one of the countries that have experienced jihadist operational methods, like suicide attacks and the modern trend of the simple- yet effective- terror methodologies of knife and vehicle attacks. Trying to address the phenomenon of terrorism effectively, the country has followed the strategy of involving also its citizens in the campaign against terror. First came the three words “slogan”: HIDE- TELL-RUN, a piece of advice by the UK police on how citizens can go through and survive a terror attack, mainly one carried out by firearms and/or weapons. Also, the British Red Cross gave advice about how first aid should be administered in case of a terror attack. In both cases, the approach was mainly that of dealing with the event and the aftermath, somewhat from the position of a victim. Recently though the National Police Chiefs Council launched a new program, one of online counter-terrorism training for its citizens.
The “Action Counter Awareness eLearning” project aims to create “CT citizens” able to spot, understand suspicious behavior and take the correct steps for protection until the authorities arrive and take charge. The training is given online and it is for free. It comprises seven modules and takes less than an hour to complete. Basically, citizens get trained to be able to be part of the operational response to a possible terror attack and help with prevention.
There are obvious advantages to this training. First of all, citizens who are the target of terror attacks- especially of the indiscriminate type the Islamist terror network uses- regain power. Terrorism is a reign of fear, it makes the public feel vulnerable, defenseless and this is its main power and propaganda tool. Citizens that know how to contribute to their security immediately feel they are no “sitting ducks”, they have an amount of power over events. Basically, they can do something, instead of facing the paralyzing option of “I can’t do anything to protect against a terror attack”. In an era that terrorism has become part of our reality, it is important to be able to respond and contribute actively to the procedure that protects us. Furthermore, citizens come even closer to the police and learn to cooperate with them for the good of the public order.
Of course, such involvement of citizens in counter-terrorism poses also challenges that should be taken under consideration. The most important is that counter-terrorism is not a subject to be trained online for an hour and be so easily capable to help thwart effectively a terror attack. Moreover, when it can be often difficult even for authorities to put aside stereotyping and prejudice, one can imagine how the public can make wrong judgment calls considering suspicious people that just “look different”. Strange behavior may very well be a behavior some people don’t comprehend, they are not used to it or even do not like it. For certain people, a woman in a hijab, or a man with a zabiba (prayer bump) on his forehead may be a priori perceived as suspicious. Additionally, having the confidence of a “counter-terrorism expert” because of a less than an hour e-course can lead some people to think that they could detect the development of a terror incident when they actually can not. Where basic knowledge and prejudice (even more particularly islamophobia) may meet, the outcome could be far from the effective one expected. And of course “future bad guys” can also benefit from the e-learning program and plan operations more carefully, avoiding tell signs that can be detected according to it.
As terrorism targets democracy, a way of protecting it is indeed to give power to citizens. The UK approach is moving in the right direction engaging the public to take part in a process that regards its protection. Security cannot be solely left in the hands of the police, as even for practical reasons- police officers and counter-terrorism units cannot be present everywhere. The collaboration of all stakeholders in society and using internet technology are vital steps in the fight against terrorism. The example of the UK seems to build a model other countries should follow. However, it is essential to be able to assess the success of such e-learning programs. It remains to be seen how many terror attacks will be thwarted by the effective involvement of “CT Citizens”, but also how many “false alarm” cases have occurred. In this way, we can measure the outcome of such learning programs in an objective manner, and then authorities in other countries can adopt them too as part of their counter-terrorism strategy.