x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Abu Dhabi hosts World Security Forum

The threat of terrorism and how the UAE can respond to attack is to be discussed at a conference in Abu Dhabi starting today.

A London street cleaner displays a newspaper advertisement in reaction to the 2005 bombings.
A London street cleaner displays a newspaper advertisement in reaction to the 2005 bombings.

ABU DHABI // The threat of terrorism and how the UAE can respond to attack is to be discussed at a conference in Abu Dhabi starting today. The World Security Forum will allow city planners, terrorism experts and members of the emergency services to discuss responses to catastrophes and how to recover afterwards. How cities deal with natural disasters, such as earthquakes, and the threat of climate change and epidemics will also be covered.

Michael Sheehan, a former counter-terrorism co-ordinator for the US State Department and deputy commissioner of counter-terrorism for the New York police, will discuss his experience of the city's recovery from the September 11 attacks in 2001. Mr Sheehan, who worked in New York between 2003 and 2006, said he would talk about the "continuum of response, starting with the analysis of the threat and your vulnerability, how you mitigate the threat, and how you respond so the city gets back up on its feet".

An essential part of that resilience is making sure the people are prepared for the possibility of danger, he said. "There has to be an ongoing dialogue between the leadership of the city and its population - whether that is about terrorism or hurricanes, floods, crime or dangerous roads - whatever the problems are facing that city. "Conducting periodic exercises to test your response can help sensitise people to what they need to do."

However, he said, "if you haven't been hit, it's harder to get people thinking about it". "In the US it was hard before 9/11, and it took things like the London attacks of 2005 and the Madrid bombings of 2004 to get the British and Spanish fired up. "It is hard in the absence of an attack to get people really focused - but these terrorists have attacked around the world now so there shouldn't be anyone doubting their intentions and ability."

Mr Sheehan, who also served as the White House's counter-terrorism "ambassador at large", said each country and city had to be aware of the specific vulnerabilities it has, and be able to prioritise the threats without compromising its own values. "Ultimately, if a guy's got a truck bomb and is going to drive it in front of a hotel there is not a lot you can do about it. If you make your city look like a fortress that gives the terrorists a psychological victory," he said.

"You have to strike a balance between having people alert, but still feeling comfortable to live and invest and go on holiday in your city. The number one economic engine in London or Paris, or here, is tourism, and you have to make the city open and welcoming." Mr Sheehan dismissed the widely-held view that the Iraq war has made the threat of terrorism here or in the West any worse. "I predicted a few years ago that the unpopularity of the Iraq war would be a recruiting poster and make things more difficult, but that hasn't quite happened. Five years after the start of the war, it is still a fairly local affair. You can make an argument that people are angrier, but they were angry at the US long before the war started.

"Mohammed Sidique Khan, who led the group behind the London bombings, made his first trip to the camps in Pakistan in 1999. He later used the Iraq war as an excuse for what he was going to do, but he started long before that and had a long list of grievances. If the Iraq war went away immediately he still would have done it." Although optimistic about the future, Mr Sheehan does not think that resolving some of the grievances of radical groups would help stop terrorism in the short term.

"Over generations if we can have peace between Israel and its neighbours, solve the problems in Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Afghanistan, make them stable places, then of course that will help. "But in the short term the terrorists are out there and operating at their own tempo - they are not going to suddenly go back to growing corn. "Al Qa'eda is going to end up on the ash heap of history. That is at least a generation away. If we're smart we can accelerate that march, but if we do things poorly, that march is going to take a lot longer and be a lot bloodier."

He said that whoever wins the US presidential election is going to face a number of significant issues, but did not think that simply showing good will to the rest of the world will have much effect. "A lot of terrorism experts will give the line that the US should reach out to the Islamic world - but it should be doing that anyhow. Whether or not there is terrorism we should have good relations. I'm not sure it matters to the people who strap bombs on themselves how good our relations are.

"They are not going to go away because a new president comes in with a warm and fuzzy feeling. What is more important than that is to find areas of joint interest with other governments and work together professionally." He said a number of issues, including the problems along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, could only be solved through careful negotiation. "No American president is going to allow a situation where terrorists are able to group and attack our interests with impunity, but at the same time they're going to have to be respectful of Pakistani sovereignty," he said.

"Those issues don't get any easier because you have a warm and loving relationship - you have to work them and find mutual interests. But if you love each other, that helps a little bit too." gmcclenaghan@thenational.ae