Britain’s bunker mentality

What kind of message does the UK's fortification of its overseas missions send to the world - and to terrorists?

Bill Durodié

Topics Politics

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In the aftermath of the bomb attacks on the British consulate and a British bank in Istanbul in November 2003, the Foreign Office has launched an exercise to examine the security of its 230 overseas missions.

The study may take ‘some months’, and will recommend numerous relocations and fortifications, costing hundreds of millions of pounds. This will dwarf the budget provided for more limited improvements such as gates, concrete blocks and bulletproof glass, initiated after the attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

Officials perceive British interests overseas to be high on the international terrorist hitlist, due to prime minister Tony Blair’s support for President Bush in the war on terror. Two British consulates, in Tangiers and Casablanca, have already relocated and the embassy in Yemen is also expected to move. The remaining missions will be examined for, among other things, their ability to withstand an attack by a lorry packed with explosives. America also recently moved some of its embassies out of towns into heavily fortified compounds.

No doubt, in the restricted imaginations of the Foreign Office officials who will write the report, all of these measures make perfect sense. ‘Why risk further attacks…? Why risk the life of a single British citizen overseas…?’ But there can be few clearer examples of something that makes sense to an auditor or a risk manager making absolutely no sense in policy terms.

Some diplomats have already pointed to one problem – losing contact with the local population. Presumably, one of the purposes of being a diplomat is to be diplomatic and this requires a certain rapport with those among whom you locate yourself. In security terms – considering that most outposts still serve an intelligence-gathering function, even at the mundane level of just knowing what is going on – this failure to integrate could actually create greater risks further afield. British diplomats would, in effect, barricade themselves in and communicate to the outside world through the intercom. Why not stay at home and use the internet instead?

But there is a bigger problem, which in some ways it is already too late to rectify: namely that hiding behind closed doors is hardly an outward expression of an inner resolve, derived from any sense of purpose. The government, through its recently launched Civil Contingencies Bill, hopes to build and strengthen UK resilience. But by responding in this way to what were, despite tragic consequences, fairly limited attacks by a group with little connection to the great bogey al-Qaeda, British officials send out a confused message to the world. If this is all it takes to provoke a sea-change in policy and inflict significant financial damage, then the government really is doing the terrorists’ job for them.

Allowing such a ‘bunker mentality’ to develop will prove debilitating. Logically, diplomatic residences ought also to be assessed, fortified and, if necessary, relocated. All travel arrangements will need re-evaluation. In fact, there is no limit to feeling vulnerable, and in the long run normality will never be resumed. In the meantime, noting the onset of such significant changes from small-scale strikes, all manner of terrorists, hoaxers, loners, cranks and other disaffected persons with a grudge against the British state will be further encouraged to have a go.

There have always been dangers in establishing a base overseas, but in the past such narrow concerns were readily outweighed by a broader sense of purpose and opportunity. Today, viewing such moves primarily through the auditor’s prism of risk, it indeed makes more sense to call the whole thing off, pull up the gang planks and come home. After all, what’s the point in having a mission without a mission?

Bill Durodié is director of the International Centre for Security Analysis at King’s College London. He is the author of Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation after BSE, European Science and Environment Forum, 1999 (download this book (.pdf 679 KB)). He is also a contributor to Science: Can You Trust the Experts?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and Rethinking Risk and the Precautionary Principle, Butterworth-Heinemann, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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