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What lessons should we be learning from Barcelona?

The attacks on 17 August in Barcelona have reminded us again that the threat of terrorism in major European capitals still looms. While there is much discussion and debate about the capacity and capability of terrorists to conduct attacks, what we should be learning – and passing on to staff in our organisations – remains less clear. From conversations we have had with organisations over the past month, four things have become increasingly evident. We believe that these are the main takeaways from the continued spate of terrorist incidents in Europe:

Safe is not a place – Organisations that only operate in Europe or the United States often believe they do not need a security or crisis response plan because these are ‘safe’ or ‘low-risk’ contexts. Attacks in London, Manchester, Paris and Barcelona remind us that high-impact security incidents can occur even in low-risk places. Knowing how an organisation will respond if its staff are involved in an incident, or how it will support staff caught in the aftermath, is critical. No place is entirely risk free and anywhere that we have previously dismissed as safe deserves re-examination.

A minimum level of awareness in public places is required – There is nothing to suggest that staff travelling in Europe should alter their travel plans. While we discuss the likelihood of continued attacks below, there is nothing to suggest that recent terrorist attacks dramatically increase an individual’s likelihood of death or injury while travelling, even though media hype would suggest otherwise. We need to remind people that ‘zoning out’, travelling with headphones in or having their attention locked on their smartphone, is not a good idea right now. People do not need to avoid public places that are likely to be targets – European capitals, in particular crowded public places – but they should increase their awareness and/or minimise the time they linger while they are there.

Communication with employees is essential – People like to receive security communications: they like to be engaged about security. When a major incident occurs it grabs media attention and therefore ours also. People worry that somebody they know might be involved and imagine what could happen if they were in that situation. This is a good moment for organisations to engage staff on the topic of security. It is an opportunity to remind them that the organisation is aware of and actively monitoring the situation. You can also use it as a learning opportunity to inform staff what the organisation’s security protocols would be in the event of an incident. All of this builds active engagement about security within the organisation.

More attacks are likely – There are two reasons for this. The first is that extremist groups are losing ground in key Middle Eastern battlegrounds. These defeats can mean fighters move from military engagement in countries such as Iraq and Syria to supporting terrorist operations in Europe. Second, according to the theory of ‘contagion’, once a particular type of terrorist attack happens more attacks follow in quick succession. Media attention inspires violence-prone individuals, who are emboldened to imitate the attack.

Unfortunate events, such as the ones in Barcelona, enable risk and security managers to actively engage with staff on security issues and remind them of security protocols. This can be done without taking the frenzied approach of mass, and social, media but with staff and their well-being in mind. We all want the best for the people we work with and terrorist incidents provide a sober and timely reminder that while the unfortunate can, and will, happen the organisation is prepared to deal with them.

Does your organisation's global security policy and plan need a review? Send us an email and we'll let you know what we've done for other organisations and how we can help you.

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