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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 11:13 GMT 12:13 UK
Terrorist threat: Should we relax a little?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online

Army at Heathrow
On guard against a terrorist attack
The terrorists are coming, said Tony Blair; it's just a matter of time. But if Clare Short was right that we were duped about Saddam's weapons, are we also kidding ourselves about the terror threat?

Tanks at Heathrow - concrete blocks outside Parliament - talk of armed police and dirty bombs - you don't have to look far today to be reminded of the terrorist threat.

Hardly a week goes by without a new initiative or exercise designed to prepare us for, or defend us against, an attack by al-Qaeda or the like.

And with every incremental reaction by the police or government, so our fear levels creep up another notch.

Lifestyle changes

Since 11 September 2001, the threat of terrorism has affected millions of people on a very practical level.

I don't want to encourage complacency, but do we really know they have these dreadful weapons?
Bill Durodie
London families are quitting the capital; country dwellers are avoiding big cities; companies are looking for out-of-town conference venues; even train spotters are feeling the pinch as station operators are warned to view people lingering on platforms with suspicion.

But consider this: last year we were warned Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction primed and ready for deployment in 45 minutes. Tony Blair said there was a "direct threat to British national security in the trade in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons".

The current debate about Iraq's WMDs has led many people to question this. And if Clare Short is right in saying people were duped about Saddam's weapons, then what is the real threat from terrorist groups?

The lessons of the last few days should lead us to take a step back from the terrorism threat, says academic Bill Durodie, who has been monitoring the management of terrorist threats in the UK. The issue is one of those being discussed at a two-day conference hosted by King's College, London, looking at Britain's response to the terrorism threat since 11 September.

Car bomb not chemical

"I don't want to encourage complacency, but we have to ask why are we so het up about the al-Qaeda threat? Do we really know they have these dreadful weapons?" says Mr Durodie, of King's College's Centre for Defence Studies.

Eurostar at Waterloo
Even train spotters are feeling the heat
"Since September 11th the actuality of terrorism remains rather more mundane. Terrorist attacks have largely consisted of surface-to-air missiles and car bombs.

"The constant mantra that it is not 'if, but when' they will strike ought to be reviewed."

Of almost 200 terrorist strikes recorded by the US State Department last year, nine were perpetrated in Europe.

Yet the public is constantly on edge - a Yougov poll last November found 45% of Britons believed there would be a terrorist attack here within six months.

The problem for Mr Durodie and his supporters is that, unlike almost any other area of government, anti-terrorist activity is necessarily shrouded in mystery. It's impossible for ordinary folk to know what the real threat is.

Some people say we are doing the terrorists' work for them but we have an opportunity to prepare and mitigate the panic
Simon Chinn, producer Smallpox 2002

But the government has, at times, publicly fumbled the message. For example, days before that Yougov poll, Home Secretary David Blunkett issued a warning of a possible "dirty bomb" or poison gas attack by al-Qaeda. The statement was quickly withdrawn and amended.

Similarly, in February, Labour's then chairman, Dr John Reid, spoke of a terrorist threat at Heathrow similar to the 11 September attacks. He later said his remarks had been "misinterpreted".

Without any sense of the true picture, says Mr Durodie, people are liable to panic and fear the worst.

Last year's BBC docu-drama Smallpox 2002 imagined the effects of a bio-terrorist attack in the UK. But its producer, Simon Chinn, rejects charges of baseless scaremongering.

Awareness is alertness

The evidence is real, he says. Hundreds of tonnes of weaponised bio-agents, including smallpox, were manufactured by the former USSR, and some of it has gone missing, says Mr Chinn.

Concrete blocks outside Palace of Westminster
A visible sign against an invisible threat
"There is anecdotal evidence that scientists working on those programmes were hired by countries believed to have biological weapons programmes."

Rather than sewing the seeds of panic, Mr Chinn believes the point of programmes such as his is to alert the public to potential dangers.

"Some people say we are doing the terrorists' work for them but I think we have a window of opportunity at this time to prepare and mitigate the panic if such an attack happened."

Perhaps though, it's unfair to pin our fear on the actions of government, media and others. Psychologist Dorothy Rowe says al-Qaeda or no al-Qaeda, we would still be governed by dread.

"We've been on the brink of disaster for as long as I can remember," says Ms Rowe. "I've yet to find a time when things were wonderful. Every human is governed by a low-level constant dread of not knowing what will happen from one day to the next.

"It doesn't matter how much the government tell us or don't tell us, we can never be 100% sure what will happen in the world; whether a group of young men is planning an attack on London or not. The fact we can never have that control which leads to this on-going dread."


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