Private Sector Holds Key to Battling Indiscriminate Terrorism

When the U.K.'s second-biggest airport closed due to a drone incident in December 2018, one of the first calls Nick Aldworth made was to a British concerts group Live Nation.

Aldworth, the U.K.’s former counter-terrorism national coordinator, suspected a terror attack. He also knew that Live Nation had extensive experience of working with drones.

“They had done all kinds of performance testing with drones for their events and had employed a specialist. And yes, their insights were invaluable,” said Aldworth, who addressed the ASIAL Security Conference in Sydney last week.

Aldworth was also calling Live Nation because the company was a member of a special advisory group created in 2017 for counter-terrorism.

It also included the Virgin Group, the Premier League, PwC, airports operator BAA, Hertz, and financial center Canary Wharf. The group was game-changing in that for the first time the U.K. security establishment was reaching out to the private sector in its campaign against terror.

According to Aldworth, it was a move which was long overdue. The changing nature of terrorism required unprecedented levels of cooperation and information sharing between police agencies and the private sector.

Indiscriminate Killing

Aldworth told the Sydney conference that the nature of modern terrorism was "indiscriminate," uncoordinated and random. It is designed to kill or injure people rather than damage property.

“Today, anybody and everybody can be a terrorist, not only in the name of the Islamic State but also in the name of extreme right-wing beliefs,” he said.

Aldworth contrasted a 1992 attack on the city center of Manchester by the Irish Republican Army, which created 10 million pounds of property damage but killed no one, to the 2017 Manchester pop concert attack which killed 22 people and injured 220 but inflicted very little property damage.

The IRA warned police of its attack. The aim of which was to force the British Government to the negotiating table. The lone terrorist responsible for the 2017 attack was a suicide bomber intent on killing as many people as possible.

"We realized that these ideologies were very different and that we in the policy and intelligence community could not do this on our own," he said.

“The first duty of the state is to protect its citizens, but I don’t think we live in that world anymore, and we have to facilitate the ability of the citizen to look after themselves.”

While the U.K. had 120,000 members in the various police forces, there were 340,000 licensed security industry professionals and as many more working unlicensed.

Then there were the information systems and the growing army of remote sensors maintained by private companies. They could deliver insights valuable for national security, all within a framework of appropriate privacy and consent.

This had implications for the security and data posture of private companies. They now had a security responsibility beyond their industry remits.

Open Secrets

Faced with an escalating situation in the U.K., the authorities decided in 2017 to reach out to the security industry and the business sector. It enlisted them in the fight against terrorism with a program called Step Change.

“But one of the first things which happened then was that businesses came to us and said ‘look you are calling on us to look after ourselves, but you are not telling us anything. You are not sharing with us, how do we know what we are supposed to do,’” said Aldworth.

"That was actually a fair challenge because we weren't talking to the business, and we weren't sharing information.”

The “gamechanger” came with a new executive appointment who began talking about “daring to share” with the private sector, and this new approach yielded results.

"I had spent my entire life as a police officer or in the military, not sharing," said Aldworth.

“So, we had to break down that culture, and get on the front foot and find trusted people in the private sector we could talk to.”

"The key to everything we did was to get out from behind the shield of secrecy and realize that we were there for a purpose which is to protect people. But you can’t do that on your own.”

Blueprint for Collaboration

The Step Change program identified areas of focus. They include transport, crowded places, security resilience, and tourism. Cybersecurity and finance were considered specialist areas best dealt with by expert agencies.

“We are doing five projects in each of these areas, and I think we are moving fastest in tourism,” said Aldworth.

“We have worked with travel providers to ensure that every single representative working for a U.K. company who meets a British person in a foreign hotel has been trained in counter-terrorism.”

By the end of the year, the program is hoping to create a system whereby British people who arrive in foreign countries will receive messages on emergency contacts and any relevant warnings.

“The best thing about these changes is that I am not delivering them. It is the private sector delivering them,” said Aldworth.

“But this requires a cultural change. As a young police officer, I looked on the security industry almost as an enemy than a friend, and we have to break that thinking. Because unless we nail this piece about working with the private sector, we won’t succeed in keeping our nation secure.”