Grounded by caution
The Kenya warnings show how terror alerts can bring everything down.
The UK Department of Transport has suspended all passenger and cargo flights from Britain to Kenya, amid claims that a terror attack on British interests in Kenya is ‘imminent’.
As a result, many British tourists are stranded in Kenya, others have had to travel to Somalia to find an exit route from east Africa, and the Kenyan authorities are fretting about the future of their tourism industry. The Kenya confusion shows that over-cautious responses to terrorist alerts can sometimes cause as much chaos as actual terrorist acts.
As with many terror alerts over the past 18 months, it’s difficult to work out how real the current threat is. British officials claim they have specific intelligence about an attack, which forced them to issue their ‘most urgent warning’ in recent years (1).
Yet Kenyan officials claim that the British ‘are acting out of panic’ (2). They allege that the alert is in response to recent sightings of suspected al-Qaeda terrorist Fazul Abdullah Mohammed in Somalia and Kenya. Kenyans say that, while Mohammed’s presence is ‘cause for concern’, it doesn’t necessarily point to an imminent attack.
The use of the word imminent might suggest (from the dictionary definition) that an attack is ‘impending’. But since 11 September 2001, many alerts have been described as imminent without an attack occurring. In October 2001, US officials said an attack on the USA was imminent; the US Department for Homeland Security’s terror alert system has risen to imminent a number of times over the past year.
Whatever the facts, the suspension of air traffic between the UK and Kenya reveals much about the modern terror warning. One of the most striking responses, from both Britons and Kenyans, has been a bad faith one – where many assume that the British authorities are going over the top or just trying to make a point.
This isn’t surprising. One of the effects, it seems, of being subjected to a barrage of terror alerts – whether low, elevated or imminent – has been to heighten people’s cynicism towards government warnings, rather than to induce anything like anti-terror solidarity. Some might ask why Britain suspended flights to Kenya when it didn’t to the more affluent Saudi Arabia, which suffered a terror attack this week.
The Kenya episode shows that, increasingly, precaution rules in the campaign against terror. It seems that, rather than focus on trying to stop the alleged terrorists, British officials have opted to stop everything else instead – to stop the flow of traffic and people between Britain and Kenya, just in case something were to happen.
This is the precautionary principle in action, where officials clamp down on our movement until, presumably, it can be demonstrated that there is zero risk involved in such movement.
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