G20: Careless Talk [could] Costs Lives (updated)

by | Mar 31, 2009

While Alex blogs live from inside I will be doing my best to follow events outside – via Twitter, Flickr and SMS. But is it safe to go outside?

The ‘experts’ expect anarchy on the streets of London and even the possibility of a terrorist attack.  For example:

Michael Clarke, the head of London’s Royal United Services Institute think-tank, said small terrorist groups may use the cover of planned protests by environmentalists, anti-war protesters and labor unions to mount an attack.

“The protests will cause uncertainty and chaos, and if they turn violent could complicate the lives of those police and security service staff who are looking for terrorists,” said Clarke, who sits on British government’s National Security Forum, an advisory panel of security experts.

So to be clear. Terrorists may use the cover of legitimate protests to stage an attack while the protests themselves are going to cause uncertainty and chaos. As Professor Clarke sits on the National Security Forum I wonder if he and the forum have been briefed by the intelligence agencies – or is this a personal opinion?

If ‘chaos’ is going to happen and there is the potential for a terrorist attack why hasn’t the Security Service (MI5) raised the threat level to CRITICAL – meaning an attack is expected imminently. From what I can gather the Security Service is trying to play down such a threat – concious that legitimate protest is important in this country but keeping a watching brief as events unfold. As has been proven in the past millions of people can walk the streets of London without causing large scale rioting. My concern is that talk of anarchy and rioting by securocrats, ‘experts’,  and the Met Police turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The aim of Government and the Met Police must surely be to reduce the potential for rioting and attempt to diffuse an already volatile  situation – rather than fuelling speculation in the media on what nightmare scenario might happen.  This could have been done through dialogue (better briefing on what is going on (Operation Glencoe)) while reiterating key messages about their role to police a largely peaceful protest, rather than the drip drip of banal information by mid level police officers which sub-editors happily snap up. Hardly the most constructive, mature and sensible way to police an event.

Hundreds of hours have been spent designing the route and security requirements for the demonstrations tomorrow but there will always be the potential  for smashed windows and cuts and bruises – the important thing is to limit those opportunities – to take the sting out of the tail. Designated routes have been identified and signposted and security folk at banks and major buildings in the city will also have been planning for months: Executive boards will have been briefed on what to expect. The last thing politicians, protesters and the public need are police officers, and experts speculating on the potential for massive violence.

Of course there will be idiots who want to be violent – and the security services and the Met Police will have been collaborating with national police forces to ensure those violent protesters are identified and  their conversations and plans monitored. But more work should have been done trying to diffuse the situation.

In the next couple of days the key will be to nip the potential for violence in the bud – allowing the  demonstrations to continue but diffusing the protesters energy so that it doesn’t spill over into other parts of the crowd. The Met Police, experts and the mainstream media could have approached the security of the G20 in a more mature fashion – at least it would have meant we could focus on the meat of the G20 discussions rather than the armour protecting them.

Update:  Editors and sub-editors are at it already. From the New Zealand Herald: Fear terrorists will use G20 protests


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    Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.

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