When frontline policing meets the terrorist threat

Silhouette of soldierVigilance is key for gardaí to ensure that a potential terrorist emergency does not become a disaster writes Noel Whelan


Noel WhelanAs a boy growing up in a military family in Ireland, I was always fascinated by the dedication of An Garda Síochána. I asked my parents many searching questions about the police and crimes on the evening news. They informed me that I should respect the police and that they always catch the criminal in the end, no matter how long it takes them. I came from a particularly large traditional military family going back many generations and so I was no stranger to the lofty ideals of sacrifice and working in the service of others. I believe it takes a really special kind of person to become a police officer and the real, sometimes thankless, challenges that the role of a police officer brings with it. I have worked with many international police officers and the same theme of dedication, sacrifice and professionalism becomes evident while they are on or off duty through very difficult challenges.

Those challenges are going to increase and become more complex in the future as more will be required from international police forces with regard to the ever changing nature of international security, the threat of international terrorism, protecting the public and national interests. This is where ordinary policing meets the terrorist threat. It is a fact that most improvised explosive devices and other terrorist paraphernalia will be discovered by a police officer or member of the public who will contact the police during the normal course of their duties. In fact highly alert inquisitive police officers have saved countless lives around the world from foiled terrorist attacks.

What motivates terrorists to seek to create mass casualties is twofold. The first strategy involves the terrorist demonstrating his or her determination and motivation by creating mass casualties in society in order to keep a high level of anxiety within it. The second strategy is that by being motivated to create mass casualties, the terrorist is forcing the government to motivate itself, to listen to his or her grievances and to take action or be influenced.

However the techniques, tactics and strategies for the international terrorist and indeed the lone wolf terrorist are ever changing and therefore so must the education, training, techniques tactics and strategies of police forces to mitigate the threat of terrorism both domestically and internationally. Gone are the days when most terrorists travelled overseas to get training in weapons and explosives in a desire to create loss, harm and serious damage in pursuit of political aims and objectives. This is because more international police forces and intelligence services are working together and are getting better at detecting suspects and suspicious activity. As a result the nature of countering terrorism is getting better so there must be a need for the potential terrorist to change the nature of his or her operations, communications and intentions. This nature is easily facilitated by the use of social media and online instructions about types, uses, effects and construction of explosive materials that can be homemade and transported to the intended target location.

It is therefore ever more likely that it will be the ordinary police officer carrying out routine patrols and ordinary policing that will be the first point of contact in preventing a terrorist attack or managing the catastrophic effects of successful terrorist attacks. This is evidenced with the Boston Marathon bombings. The terrorists knew very well that by placing their improvised explosive devices close to the finish line, they would incur massive damage and loss of life. Why? Because people’s awareness would naturally be low while observing their loved ones finish the marathon and that the police would have most likely checked the route of the marathon prior to the start of the event.

The island of Ireland still has its problems with terrorism in that there are people who wish to create mass casualties: either criminal gangs or paramilitary groups targeting vehicles, etc. using UVIEDs (under vehicle improvised explosive devices). These types of indiscriminate specific attacks take no consideration for innocent passers-by or children playing in an area close to where a device may be planted next to or disguised under something else for concealment while awaiting their desired target.

Previous terrorist attacks show past history and modus operandi of terrorist groups or individual loan wolf terrorists. This makes them vulnerable as their techniques and tactics become visible. Most importantly it proves their capability, credibility and intention. This works very much in the favour of international police and intelligence services in detecting and deterring further attacks as every contact leaves a trace.

When policing high profile and public events remember that terrorists will always need to survey their target and will most probably wait until after the emergency services have checked the route before placing their explosive devices as the feeling of safety will be established. Remain vigilant when patrolling. Think like the terrorist wanting to create mass casualties. Where could you find a place with lots of members of the public congregating at the same time? This would be the area you need to keep observing even after you believe the place is secure. As a police officer you must also remember to watch for any watchers that might be watching your movements. 

The sad reality is that they haven’t gone away – for us all.  

Noel G. Whelan is Global Director of Training at International Anti & Counter Terrorism Training Specialists (IACTTS)

Principle of 6 C’s
If as a police officer you discover something during the course of your duties that you think may be a suspicious package, then please follow this principle of 6 C’s to guide you in protecting yourself, colleagues and members of the public.

Confirm – check, if there is a problem – yes /no. If you cannot identify the object then you may have a problem, go to stage 2.

Clear – clear the area. Never use electronic equipment to communicate while clearing an area as this could prematurely set off an explosive device via electronic initiation. 

Cordon – cordon off the area to a minimum safety distance. 

Communicate – remember if you have to communicate electronically, do so from outside of the cordoned off area. 

Control – control entrance to restricted area from cordon area. Liaise and await arrival of emergency services. Inform emergency services of what you have seen, heard or smelt at the restricted location and the actions you have taken initially. 

Check – check and keep checking the above principle of 6 C’s to keep you focused and clear during the incident. By carrying out the principle of 6 C’s you will help prevent an emergency evolving into a disaster. Remember – don’t touch. Tell.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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