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The Risk Professional : why terrorism works

Nigel Morris-Co...

There is much talk of successes against terrorism, in part as the justification for placing restrictions on long- and hard-won freedoms from oppressive government. But as the bombs placed at the route for the Boston Marathon shows, identifying and containing terrorist threats is next to impossible.

Boston has a large population, but it's a small town. Or rather it's several small towns that function under a city-wide umbrella. And it's a friendly place (well, it is if you stay in your own part of town: some "southies" for example are surprisingly territorial and even adopt a patois that other Bostonians struggle to understand).

Boston is a paradox: it's the quintessential American town, it's more Irish than much of Ireland, more English than much of England. It's ultra modern but steeped in and relishing tradition. It's rich and it's poor. But most of all, it's Boston and, for much of the history of Post Colonial America, it's peaceful.

But that peace ended yesterday with a carefully planned and executed bomb attack intended to harm ordinary people doing ordinary things. The strategy was straight out of the IRA playbook as adopted by various other terrorists. A bomb was placed in a crowded area with other bombs set to detonate as people ran towards them, and multiple bombs in multiple places detonating more or less simultaneously.

Boston is prepared for such an event. The instant response of the authorities was to shut down the cell-phone networks - no news could reach families but that is a small price to pay to prevent the use of mobile phones to trigger more detonators. They shut down the underground railway service - it made it more difficult for people to flee but prevented them heading into potential kill zones. They closed airspace around the city - the USA remains paranoid about fly-in attacks after 11 September 2001 but also the risk that, in a country where even heavy military kit is readily available, the risk that a ground to air attack might be mounted.

Preliminary investigations are that the bombs were home made. They are described as "small" but the injuries suggest that the definition of "small" may be a little stretched. Blast injuries were compounded by shrapnel, suggesting a form of "nail bomb" although the shrapnel has not been described in detail.

Local media reports were sensational - as yet no data is available to say if they were sensationalist. They spoke of "limbs being blown off."

So far, the casualty list is two fatalities and 23 injured. But the usual pattern of such events is that those who consider themselves not seriously injured do not go to hospitals for treatment. A mix of shock and not wanting to burden emergency services leads them away from the scene. Some media is estimating the numbers of injured at more than 100.

The most telling comment comes from the Boston Police who say that there was absolutely no intelligence to suggest even disruption, much less a terrorist attack.

And that's why the small town nature of Boston is so relevant: everyone knows stuff about others. It's a community of communities, with cross-overs. Keeping secrets is difficult.

And yet, either someone did or someone from outside the city made a specific plan to target a massive social event.

And that's the nature of terrorism. To prove that a strike can happen anywhere, at any time.

So far, there is no hint as to who may have committed the acts although one person is under police guard in hospital after video footage hinted at a link to one of the bombs.

Mobile phones and TV footage together with print media photographers were at the finish line when the bomb went off. It's very well documented event. That may well turn out to be the most valuable asset the authorities have in tracking down those responsible for this act.


Nigel Morris--Cotterill is Head, The Anti Money Laundering Network, www.antimoneylaundering.net, ultimate owner of ChiefOfficers.Net