The Terrorist Threat to Ireland is a Psychological One
Following the initial shock of the Friday 13th attacks on Paris we now enter a period of uncertainty. Leaders all over Europe are holding emergency meetings in order to determine how prepared they are for the possibility of a similar event occurring on their own soil. The extent of the risk is hard to measure. Everything and everyone is now a potential target for attack. Radicalisation can occur anywhere. The shock-waves of the Paris attack have even spread as far as our own shores.
In a poll recently conducted by Claire Byrne Live /Amárach Research it was found that 91% of Irish people feel that the country is not adequately prepared to defend against a terrorist attack. Only 3% believe that Ireland is prepared, while 6% didn’t know. Of course, these findings don’t tell us anything about how prepared Ireland actually is; what they do reveal is the degree to which people’s security has been shaken by the shock of the attack on Paris. Against such sporadic and sudden attack, how can any nation maintain a sense of total security?
Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald said that to absolutely guarantee that attacks could never take place in a democracy would involve taking extreme measures that would change the very nature of our societies and hand ultimate victory to the terrorists. Her message is that paranoid security measures would be more harmful to ourselves than the terrorist they are in place to stop.
However, neither are we helpless in the face of such attacks. Gardaí have already stepped up security measures at air and sea ports. They have increased surveillance of targets on the suspect list of terrorist figures with Middle Eastern links. They are also working closely with Muslim communities throughout the country. All information gathered by the Gardaí is then cross-referenced with other European police forces in a joint effort to combat the threat of terrorism.
The measures were put in place after senior anti-terrorist officers carried out an intelligence assessment review following the attack in Paris. They also followed from a briefing given to the Government by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan.
The worry expressed by senior Gardaí is that the Paris attacks displayed a sophisticated level of co-ordination and planning that would be particularly difficult to defend against.
“Friday night represents a step up to a more sophisticated level for these terrorists with the co-ordinated use of three teams, all heavily armed and prepared”, said one officer. “It is also significant that there was very little chatter on the airwaves in advance of the attacks and no early pointers towards the imminent shootings and bombings,” he said.
Nonetheless, the threat level for Ireland remains low. When the State’s National Security Committee met to consider the implications of the Paris attacks on Ireland they concluded that the threat level in this jurisdiction remains unchanged. The main concern is that Ireland could become a transport hub for extremists. Thus, a new focus has been placed on flights between Ireland and the Middle East and North Africa.
So far, there has been no fresh evidence of an increase in young people traveling from Ireland to Syria and Iraq. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring it is estimated that only 25 to 30 people have gone there from Ireland, but that does not mean that they are aligned with extremists groups.
Despite the lack of any imminent threat, Irish people do not feel secure. The troubling consequences of the Paris attack is that it created a sense that even relative peace can suddenly explode into unfathomable violence. This was the issue addressed by Commissioner O’Sullivan in a statement that found a balance between security concerns and the need to maintain calm: “Unfortunately it can happen any place, any time, and I think vigilance, without striking fear into the heart of the community, is really important.”
The difficulty facing Gardaí now is that they must deal with legitimate security risks without increasing the sense of anxiety caused by surprise terrorist attacks, such as we saw in Paris.