Osama Bin Laden: A Matter of Trust
Osama Bin Laden is dead. It is undeniably the end of an era. Yet, the million pound question is, what are the implications for the so-called War on Terror? Will it increase or decrease the likelihood of attack in London and does it make us safer? Experts are currently debating these questions, each offering opposing assessments.
Ultimately, of course, nobody knows. However, there are some people who can make a more informed judgement: those in the security services. They have monitored the ebb and flow of al Qaeda-inspired terrorism since 9/11. They saw the numbers of people seduced by the Bin Laden narrative rise dramatically in the run-up to the Iraq War, and likely diminish over the past couple years.
However, we in the public realm are more or less clueless. We are assured the threat of terror is very high, and I personally believe it is significant. Yet the only data on the numbers of British people being monitored is from 2007. A BBC report at the time showed the security services were watching around 2,000 such individuals.
This uncertainty is significant because one of the principal aims of terrorism is to increase fear. In the wake of Bin Laden’s death, Governments warned about the likelihood of revenge attacks. Yet polling from the US suggested most Americans feel safer now he is dead. In the UK there was no evidence about how Britons and Londoners viewed the threat. So Demos decided to do a short poll of over a hundred Londoners in five different areas. The findings of our poll have been published in a short paper, which you can download here.
As part of the questionnaire we asked Londoners if they thought the killing increased the risk of attack in London in the short term and in the long term. We also asked if they were more fearful of riding public transportation. Most feared an attack in the next six months, while 1 in 3 were more nervous about using public transport. Only 2 out of 5 felt the killing of Bin Laden did not increase the risk of an attack in the long term.
Such is the character of modern terrorism that even a victory causes public anxiety. So the security services should consider publishing an annual or even biannual counter terrorism threat report that includes the rough number of people they are monitoring and their assessment of the threat. This type of transparency is not without precedent. The Dutch security services AIVD publish a number of similar reports which can be viewed here.
It’s time the security services shed some light on to the threats we face in the name of building public trust and easing fear.