Terrorism is one of the world’s greatest security challenges. Trying to predict it is an important part of the effort to counter terrorism.
Intelligence and security agencies around the world occasionally issue warnings about the likelihood of terrorist attacks in certain places.
On 23 October 2022, the US Embassy in Nigeria released an advisory to alert US nationals in the country of possible terrorist attacks in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory. The alert led to widespread public anxiety.
The level of concern is not surprising. Terrorist violence has worsened in Nigeria in recent years. The latest Global Terrorist Index ranks Nigeria as the sixth most terrorised country in the world. Abuja has been targeted for terrorist attacks in the past, including the tragic 2011 Police Headquarters and United Nations Building incidents.
I’m a political science lecturer who has researched terrorism defence strategies, and I’m uneasy about the Nigerian government’s handling of the latest terror alert.
The government appears to have downplayed the latest threat. It called for calm. But this is likely because it feels it needs to assert itself politically. No country likes to let a foreign entity define its national security situation.
However, terror alerts should be taken seriously – and there are several measures that can be taken to protect citizens.
What are terror alerts?
Predicting terrorism entails forecasts based on intelligence gathering and risk assessment.
The process involves issuing and publicising classified threat alerts to notify the public of the possibility of a terror attack on a certain target in a particular location.
Such alerts enable government and its security agencies to be poised for the eventuality of an attack. They also enable the public to be vigilant so as to avoid being a victim.
More importantly, alerts enable the security agencies to put measures in place to avert incidents.
Some threats won’t be noticed by the intelligence and security communities. The 9/11 attacks in the US evaded the forecasting prowess of the country’s sophisticated military and intelligence sectors.
Terror alerts are as reliable as the validity and objectivity of their sources and procedures. But no matter how controversial or disputable a terror alert may seem to be, the best thing to do is to take proper precautions. After all precaution is not cowardice.
Nigeria’s latest alert
The Abuja threat alert was corroborated by the authorities of the UK’s High Commission in Nigeria.
The agency’s stance seemed to be that the threat alert was not worth the public tension and anxiety it provoked. Apparently, the agency had superior intelligence about the threat.
Although it did not dismiss the threat entirely, this reaction seems like an effort to save face. The Department of State Service would not want to be seen as lacking control of the situation. It would look like professional ineptitude to allow a foreign entity to lead in a critical matter of national security.
Also, it is unnecessary to create panic where there is probably no basis for it. In November 2017, police and emergency responders in London mobilised to a commercial area after a terror alarm that turned out to be false. But it would be a great risk to simply dismiss or downplay the threat alert.
The Nigerian government and citizens should take the alert seriously. It is strategic intelligence that must be carefully processed and acted on to avert danger.
In intelligence science and practice, even a rumour matters. So, whether the basis of the terror alert is real or not, and regardless of the legitimacy or otherwise of its sources, the ultimate concern of the Nigerian government should be to put pragmatic measures in place to prevent any threat happening.
How to handle threats
Nigeria’s intelligence systems and institutions are struggling amid operational challenges and complex national security threats. The intelligence community should work closely with relevant foreign and local stakeholders to set up a collaborative intelligence regime that can address terrorist threats more robustly and proactively.
There is a need for a contingency intelligence framework that can preempt and predict threats more precisely and comprehensively.
Citizens should take personal precautions to reduce their exposure to terrorist attacks. They should avoid crowded public places as much as possible. Being with the whole household in a big public gathering may not be advisable.
Social, religious and political gatherings should be planned and hosted in a way that guarantees maximum event security. Relevant security agencies should be involved and safety measures must be taken.
Providing a first aid point in an event arena is one simple measure to take.
Leaders in churches and mosques should provide for security and crowd management concerns in their places of worship.
Similarly, managers of markets, parks, event centres, shopping malls, schools, and recreational facilities should put measures in place to detect and prevent threats. Public spaces should have CCTV cameras, scanning devices, and so on.
The best way to respond to a terror alert is to take measures to avert it, or mitigate its impact. These measures need to be taken with all seriousness regardless of whether the source or substance of the alert is credible or not.
Apart from harming people and property, terrorism destabilises systems and makes it harder for societies to develop and sustain progress.