Sunday, April 21, 2013
Boston Marathon bombing aftermath: What it means for Singapore
Four days. That's the time to beat for law enforcement officials tasked to investigate future Boston Marathon urban terror scenarios.
The swift and decisive manner in which authorities in the United States assessed, singled out and made contact with Suspects Number 1 and 2 inevitably sets a benchmark which people may use to compare future investigations.
The relevance for Singapore is clear: Expectations of Singaporeans need to be closely monitored and managed in the event of urban terrorism in our city-state, which we have been cautioned repeatedly to guard against but has yet to take place this century.
Managing public expectations
Singapore may well need more than four days to bring into police custody any suspects. Indeed, a complicated case file may be left open for a significant period of time as investigators sift through tell-tale clues in an effort to trace the author(s) of the crime.
That first blast, first shot or first kill by whatever means will set into motion drawer plans developed and refined from the police doctrine practised during the Confrontation era when Singapore weathered an urban bombing campaign by Indonesian saboteurs.
Plans, programmes and procedures to mitigate the impact of an urban terror attack are complemented by investments in infrastructure that have given authorities eyes on public buses in the form of CCTV cameras, at mass rapid transit stations and sensitive and vulnerable places.
These are complemented by regular ground deployment exercises that help various agencies come together to test out assorted scenarios.
At the same time, the ability of authorities to react quickly has been addressed with the formation of police Anti-Swarming Teams (ASTs) trained, organised, equipped and supported to engage in close quarter defence.
Boston's search for Suspects No. 1 and 2 is said to have resulted in the deployment of some 4,000 well-armed police officers. If a nationwide security situation outstrips manpower that the Singapore Police Force Special Operations Command can provide, we may need to call on the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Special Operations Task Force to join the party.
We saw a real-world deployment between SPF and SAF forces during the hunt for armed fugitives on Tekong island in March 2004 when it was 700 versus 3.
The obvious lesson here is that urban terror situations will sap security manpower immensely for cordon and search operations. As it has taken decades for SAF special forces to be grouped under SOTF, one hopes that elite police officers grouped under STAR, SPEAR, CNB and Gurkha Contingent special units can similarly cooperate and coordinate their efforts should the balloon go up.
Alas, in urban terror situations, nobody can forecast the time, manner or intensity of attacks or even the identity or strategic intent of the attacker(s). Unlike the urban terror campaign waged by PIRA against British authorities during the Troubles, today's terror cells strike without warning, are indiscriminate in their quest for death and destruction and are unlikely to claim their kills.
Attackers that choose to remain nameless mean only one thing: These are elements that cannot be negotiated with because there is no one to talk to. And if no negotiations are possible, there can be no peace talks guided under the law of armed conflict. This means conflict termination can only be effected through force of arms and should we face this sort of threat, we better be mentally and operationally prepared for a tough fight.
It is therefore more important for mitigation efforts to be capability-based rather than threat-specific. This is because the nature of the urban terror threat is nowadays ill-defined, amorphous and may involve clean skin individuals with no prior record of anti-social inclinations.
H+1 of an urban attack
Within the first hour of an attack in Singapore, social media will go crazy. People in the vicinity of the incident site or sites (in the case of simultaneous attacks like in Mumbai) will post accounts of the incident first chance they get. Istagram traffic will spike as pictures are shared in cyberspace.
Having grown up in a terror-free state, some Singaporeans have no sense of danger or self-preservation. We saw during a recent MRT fire that some idiot commuters lingered to take pictures of the situation rather than evacuate immediately, putting themselves at risk if the situation flared out of control (it didn't). Can we expect a replay during a terror situation as gawkers and rubber neckers crowd the area for ringside seats of the action?
If the intent was to sow fear, having images of the terror attack go viral would have accomplished that goal.
In this regard, the blood lust of Singaporeans with no social conscience will work against society as netizens try to outdo one another with pictures and captions which they find amusing. Witness what happened when the two young boys were killed by a cement mixer while cycling home not too long ago.
Will the same happen during a terror attack or will we act responsibly?
During that confused H+1, authorities are likely to shut down mobilephone base stations in the vicinity of the attack or even island-wide to guard against the possibility that IEDs may be detonated by mobilephone signals.
The Singaporean commuter, wedded to his or her mobile device during regular commutes, may feel lost as wireless access is lost. Even if base stations are kept operational, the surge in traffic as panicky Singaporeans call or SMS their family and friends will overwhelm the capacity of the telcos to cope with this spike in demand. The mobile network will thus go offline.
That first hour is crucial.
Authorities must quickly decide if land, air and sea embarkation points should be closed to prevent the escape of the perpetrators.
When Boston city was locked down, the American economy powered on. When you lock down a city-state like Singapore, our economy will go into a tailspin.
An urban attack on Singapore could potentially extract an economic price out of all proportion to the deadliness of the attack if and when it succeeds in shutting down vital economic sectors.
The world will be watching as foreign media chase the story. The irony is that the longer Singapore stays terror-free, the greater the impact of a terror situation and the more newsworthy the story becomes. Success of the attack cannot be measured merely in terms of actual dead or injured or the cost of property damaged because a terror attack will have wider and long-term strategic ramifications.
This is why Singapore has been described as a trophy target.
The shutdown of vital economic sectors is more than a theoretical construct. In January 2008, a wayward Cessna 208 Caravan float plane that ventured towards Singaporean airspace caused a security alert that saw the launch of two Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16D warplanes on QRA. This incident closed Changi Airport for some 50 minutes during the airport's evening peak period. You may well imagine the economic cost of the airspace lockdown, which was done to clear airspace for RSAF fighters to do their work.
Replicate the Boston Marathon lockdown in the heart of Singapore's Central Business District or indeed island-wide and the cost from loss business will shoot up into the millions of dollars, perhaps even past the billion-dollar mark.
More than the casualty count and monetary cost is the potential loss of confidence should that first strike take place.
Singaporeans will demand answers. Having seen how crime scene investigations progressed in Boston, the vocal, the unreasonable and the ignorant may expect things to be wrapped up magically within days. This may not be the case as every crime scene investigation is unique.
Are the bellyaches able to understand and accept this fact of life or will toxic and unhelpful comments continue to litter cyberspace?
In the aftermath of an attack, it is critical that confidence is stabilised among residents and investors. Authorities must have crisis communications protocols and instruments that can reach out to people whether by real world means (print, broadcast media), in cyberspace or face to face comms.
More importantly, that voice must be viewed by people as a credible one. The onset of an emergency is not the time to build trust and credibility. Emotional credit must be won and banked with the people way in advance, on a regular basis, so that people will look to the Spokesman for leadership and for assurance. This is hearts and minds 101.
Whatever is communicated, there will be elements in society who hatch conspiracy theories or refuse to accept the version of events presented by authorities. Events in Boston this past week mirror the experience of information managers who studied what happened after London's 7/7 attacks and the September 11 attacks in the US. There will be people who articulate alternative scenarios, in so doing unwittingly planting seeds of doubt and damaging society's trust and confidence in authorities and in one another.
In a city-state, the deleterious effect of such theories is magnified by our urban density, our high Internet penetration and fragility of race relations. So officialdom will need to watch out for toxic comments from the usual suspects and act against them if need be.
As the island nation is kept on tenterhooks, Singaporeans must watch out for fault lines in society fracturing. The record of urban terror situations from 9/11, the Madrid bombings, London bombings, assorted blasts in Jakarta and Bali and further afield in Pakistan - the list goes on - may prompt some Singaporeans to stereotype their mental model of the face of terror.
Should the probe into a Singapore attack result in pictures of suspects that fit that stereotype, there is a real risk that faultline will rupture.
If trouble flares, an unsettled Singaporean population that tears this country apart would be one of the intended after-effects of the urban terror attack. This is an own goal we should prevent.
Proactive, timely and relentless intervention by society is therefore needed to keep the peace, not if but when the storm breaks.
Posted by David Boey at 6:00 PM