As despicable as terrorism is, it’s just a part of life in the 21st century. Most of the enemies we’re likely to face in the near future have no chance of challenging the US military directly, and unfortunately, when they realize that, they’re more likely to resort to terror attacks than an all-out battle. This means there’s a constant threat of terrorist attack, and if you’re in the military or law enforcement, you’re at higher risk than a civilian. The Army knows the nature of the threat, which is why August is the 5th annual Antiterrorism Awareness Month.
We’ve gotten used to thinking of terrorism as being large-scale “spectaculars” like the 9/11 atrocities or the Boston bombing, but that can be a dangerously narrow focus. Never forget that terrorism is a flexible weapon. If intelligence starts to foil too many of the big attacks, the enemy can adapt, especially if it’s a decentralized enemy like Islamist extremists. All it takes to carry out an attack is 2 or 3 people with an IED or some guns and a shared ideology. Small attacks might not have the world-shaking impact of watching the Twin Towers come down, but they can create a corrosive climate of fear. The best defense against them is awareness and vigilance.
In many ways we’ve been lucky so far; the terrorist threat has been mostly confined to overseas attacks. Speak to any British soldier older than about 35 or so and you’ll find they have a very different perspective. Three decades of dealing with the Provisional IRA hammered home a lot of lessons about personal security. Most PIRA terrorism was directed against soldiers and policemen when they were off duty, often when they were at home with their families or on their way to and from work. That made it vital to avoid setting routines, to be aware of anyone suspicious in the neighborhood, and to check any potential threats carefully. Checking under cars for IEDs was so routine people did it without thinking; strangers asking questions in a military community would quickly be checked out.
There are many lessons we can apply too.
Be observant. Learn the patterns of activity around where you live, work, drink, worship and even shop; look for people who seem to be loitering and observing. This can also help foil larger attacks – a “spectacular attack” needs intelligence gathering, and if you make that difficult, they may well back off.
Be very wary of social media. Watch what you display – photos of your post or your buddies could be valuable information to an attacker. Never discuss planned training, exercises or deployments on an insecure network. It sounds obvious, but unit security teams have found some horrific stuff on Facebook.
Don’t be afraid to contact security personnel with any suspicions you have. Most of the leads they follow come to nothing, but it’s worth pursuing them for the few that pay off. Given the choice, terrorists will always attack a unit with poor personal and collective security. That applies just as much to the suicidal ones we’re dealing with now as to more traditional ones like PIRA – a Jihadi may be willing to throw his life away, but he won’t want to do it for little gain. If he thinks he’ll be intercepted and stopped before achieving his mission, he’ll look for another target.
Terrorism, sadly, is here to stay. The good news is that by staying alert and taking a few basic precautions, you can massively reduce the risk to yourself, your family and everyone else around you. That’s what Antiterrorism Awareness Month is all about.