Of False Alarms and Attacks Missed

Here in the Netherlands we’ve been on a heightened state of terror-alert for over a week – which is the first time that any EU state has warned its citizens against possible imminent attacks since the train-bombings in Madrid of last March 11. Alex Burghoorn of De Volkskrant takes time out from day-to-day news to examine the general European phenomenon of terror-alerts in the recent article Terror Alarm is a Political Balancing-Act.

The immediate motivation for the heightened Dutch terror-alert is the expiration of the offer Osama bin Laden is reputed to have made to European nations of a cease-fire in exchange for withdrawing support for the Coalition in Iraq. Of course, none of the European countries with anything to concede would have anything to do with this; the Netherlands, for example, not only did not cut its troop strength in Iraq, but last month the government even approved an extension to their stay there of not the usual six months, but rather eight (although that is quite likely to be it; EuroSavant coverage was here). And so it seems that public places, public events over the past week have had extra portions of police and other security personnel covering them.

(All clear so far, you’ll be glad to hear. The only known incident has been a pathetic mini-conspiracy by some Arab asylum-seekers to target with a “bomb” – probably a grenade, if anything – American troops taking part in the four-day hiking festival at Nijmegen (Dutch website). I’ll merely refer Dutch-readers to further on-line coverage in Trouw.)

As Burghoorn observes, “Slowly Europe is gaining experience with the terror-alarm. But no one really knows whether it works.” And no one really knows how to coordinate it, either: it has only been the Netherlands on that heightened alert lately, even though one would think that certain other fellow EU member-states (e.g. Denmark, Poland; certainly the UK) would also be eligible for some sort of strike for ignoring bin Laden’s cease-fire offer. In any case, state security authorities nevertheless are being forced to become familiar with tricky questions of uncertainty and timing associated with such alerts, to wit:

  • When to call such them? The general answer is that that is when you have more information that something is likely to happen than just the usual threats that the world’s nasties routinely fling towards Western countries, yet not enough simply to make the arrests to immediately shut the threat down.
  • You don’t want to have an attack happen without some sort of alarm being called beforehand – not only for bureaucratic behind-covering reasons, but also because this is a good way to erode citizens’ confidence in any government’s anti-terror competence.
  • Yet you also don’t want to call too many alerts, too often, with nothing ever happening. That brings to mind the old Aesop’s fable about “the boy who cried wolf,” and is a good way to erode citizens’ confidence in any government’s anti-terror credibility.

At least European governments don’t also have to struggle with sheer considerations of political manipulation that many deduce from the pattern of news conferences by the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security in the United States, supposedly called to give vague warnings of upcoming attacks and/or change the national alert level.

Still, evidence so far might lead one to have to conclude that the piece-meal system of terror alerts in Europe in fact does not work. Consider what was the deadliest attack on the European mainland since the Second World War, thost train-bombings in Madrid of last March 11. As it happens, Burghoorn reminds us, there was a heightened level of terror-alert in Spain at that time, because the authorities were on the look-out for attacks from the Basque terror organization ETA just prior to the nationwide elections scheduled back then. In fact, they succeeded in intercepting a bus filled with explosives that was on its way to Madrid. On the other hand, of course, those authorities were seemingly still in the dark about the alternative threat posed by Moroccan terror-cells, with the resulting carnage and deaths on Madrid trains that day that we all know too well.

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