Britain’s exposure to acts of terrorism has been highlighted once more with the revelation that our country has become al-Qaida’s primary target.

There is a fresh, stark warning (http://www.guardian.co.uk) that a resurgent al-Qaida is adopting similar organisational structures to those deployed by the Provisional IRA during the height of the Northern Ireland conflict.

We are reliably informed in the widespread coverage of this latest update on security matters (http://news.bbc.co.uk) that terrorist cells are now active in the UK and abroad, have their sights firmly trained on this country and regard the July 7 bombings in London as a prelude to the main activity.

The intelligence services are now battling to keep a close watch on these cells, as the terrorists get wise to surveillance techniques and adopt new approaches to meeting and discussing their plans. These include holding discussions in public places, such as parks, away from eavesdroppers.

For those of us fed a diet of television drama, such as the BBC’s Spooks, this might be seem an overly simple tactic on behalf of the terrorists. Surely, the surveillance equipment now employed by our security services is far more advanced these days and even discreet conversations in public areas can be singled out and monitored? Equally, fuzzy CCTV images of suspect vehicles can be digitally enhanced thousands of times to provide a clear depiction of number plates and the occupants, can’t they?

If the fresh warnings now being issued and the difficulties now being encountered in keeping tack of extremist cells are to be believed then the simple answer is no, they can’t. 

Indeed, the timing of this latest warning is significant. A few days earlier, the BBC carried a story (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6059162.stm) explaining how the Ministry of Defence is launching a “grand challenge” to help ground troops detect threats in urban areas. The experiences of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, suggest they are struggling to safely patrol towns and cities.

As a result, the MoD is following the Pentagon’s lead in the US in seeking to produce “an autonomous or semi-autonomous technology system designed to detect, identify, monitor and report a comprehensive range of physical threats in a complex urban environment”.

It appears an eminently sensible solution to a very tricky and deadly problem. But it also suggests we are far from winning the fight and even containing the terrorist threat is proving a herculean task.

Again, this flies in the face of the messages we are given on film and on TV in various action thrillers and dramas. Of course such programmes and movies are fiction, but such is the saturation coverage these days and such is the power of these forms of media – if it is on the screen I’m watching, it has to be true – then there is a grave danger that we simply become immune to the very real threats around us and the stark warnings being issued.

The familiar refrains – “I never thought it would happen here,” or “You just don’t expect that sort of thing could happen around here” – have always smacked of a little ignorance, but if they are still trotted out after the next threat or act of terrorism then it shows that what we told by our security services and armed forces really does just go in one ear and out the other most of the time. Equally, the plucky stiff upper lip resolve of the “life must go on” attitude seems wildly misplaced and inappropriate given the level of threat we are now told we face. 

The timing of this latest security update is also significant given the brief flurry of excitement generated by both the original comments and the clarifications issued by General Sir Richard Dannat, head of the British Army (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/6046822.stm), regarding our activities in Iraq and the impact on security issues in that country. As one would expect these days, especially given the nature of the comments, Sir Richard’s words were spun – both for him and against him – over the course of a few days.

But he undoubtedly hit a nerve with many British people. There is a growing feeling that we have long outstayed our welcome in Iraq – if, in fact, we should have entered the country in the first place. But more importantly there is the belief that we have merely placed ourselves directly in the firing line by standing shoulder to shoulder with the US and playing such an active role in the “war on terror” operations. The latest intelligence reports serve to feed these concerns.

And yet, our concerns do not always marry comfortably with our responses to warnings and advice on being more vigilant and aware of what is happening around us.

The security services rely almost completely on intelligence gathering and more often than not the most valuable resource for them is us, the great British public. We have the potential to be the greatest weapon against extremism and terrorism, simply by looking at what is happening around us.

This is not a nosey neighbour’s charter, this is not about stereotyping and stigmatising a particular community. It relates to something we appear to have collectively lost – the ability to take an interest in the people we live and work alongside.

Too often we adopt a blinkered view of our part of the world and concentrate solely on ourselves and those closest to us, although even this appears to be beyond some people at times.

Ignorance has become bliss for far too many people these days – even the supposed decision-makers among us – so isn’t it time to look for a more intelligent answer?

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