When we think of the security risks that we and the organisations for which we work are exposed to, however slight they may be, we tend to think of criminals, intent on making some form of gain for themselves (or their gangs) or loss to us, and we also think of terrorists, with their political or religious beliefs guiding their actions.   

That makes sense because it’s what we read most about in the news and see on television and the Internet. Those threats are real…

What is unusual, particularly in the West, is for civilians to be at risk from a foreign state, as we haven’t been at war with a European country since Yugoslavia in 1998/99 – and as with many wars involving the UK, they have been mostly fought on foreign lands.

It understandably came as a shock when on 4th March 2018, two civilians in Salisbury, Wiltshire, former Russian military intelligence officer and British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, were poisoned with the Novichock nerve agent, which it turns out, was placed at their home where they first came into contact with the substance. Let’s not forget that police Sergeant Nick Bailey was also hospitalised as a result of the incident.

The ramifications from this incident have been great and are a moving feast, with the UK declaring that it was a deliberate act carried out by the Russian state, because it was only Russia that has developed the nerve agent and because they had a motive to kill Skripal, a former double agent who worked against Russia.  We must presume, away from the public eye, that the UK had sufficient evidence to be sure that the Russian government carried out such a deliberate act on UK soil before publicly denouncing the Russians for doing so and expelling 23 Russian diplomats.  A tit-for-tat response escalated to involve many NATO countries also expelling Russian diplomats and the Russians returning the favour in kind.  At the time of writing, 27 nations have taken political steps to show support for the UK and against the Russian government.

So, what does this all mean for the restof us?  Well, these type of incidents have always been very rare but nevertheless, are considered to be a very serious matter, which is why the harming of three individuals has not only made significant news headlines but has had extensive political impact across the globe.  The reality is that you wouldn’t want to come into contact with such a nerve agent and it is for good reason that developed countries have agreed not to use them.  Whilst the intended targets were two individuals, such nerve agents are spread via contact and it would not have been unforeseeable that others would suffer as a result.  It remains fortunate that casualty numbers were low.  The long-term outcome for those casualties is, at this stage, unknown.

It is reasonable to expect organisations to be prepared, along with it’s people, against orthodox methods used by perpetrators of nefarious acts i.e. criminals, organised or otherwise.  We should also continue to remain vigilant against the threat from terrorism and the continuously evolving modus operandi used by terrorists.   Such developing methods are becoming less easy to prevent and our mitigation measures may be more about damage-limitation, particularly with regards to the modern-day option of driving vehicles into crowds and queues of people.

It is also difficult to prevent the occurrence of a nerve or chemical attack, particularly if carried out by a foreign state, as they have the means and resources to ensure that the intended outcome is achieved.  We ultimately have to place our trust in the government and other parties, that by standing strong and adopting a zero-tolerance attitude towards such an attack, it reduces the motivation for such an event to occur again in the future, on the basis that the perpetrator would weigh up the consequences and consider that, on balance, the achievement of their aims are outweighed by the actions that will be taken against them.  We have to make the outcome undesirable for those intending for it to be carried out.

We live in an open and free society (in the UK and much of the Western World, at least) and we expect our people to be able to go about their daily lives without fear of being a victim of these types of attacks.  This is why the government has to take the strongest possible position to deter any future such action.  I know that many people believe it has been unwise to take a hostile political position against Russia, a country that we fought with at the end of World War 2 and after all the good work that has previously been undertaken by all parties in ending the Cold War.  Again, we have to assume that the UK has sufficient evident to call out Russia over this, to be prepared to take so many backward steps towards the ‘Cold’ once again.  The decision to do so, not taken lightly, will have been a calculated one made in the interests of ensuring that foreign states cannot come onto UK soil (or any NATO or allied country for that matter), to harm its people.

It will be interesting to see how long relations take to recover from this.  I would put a figure of at least 10 years on it, with a further downturn expected before there is any sign of improvement.  People I meet with regularly, who like to discuss topical news issues, often come up with the same question or a variation of it: “It’s one planet that we all have to share so why we can’t all just get along?”  Indeed.

Written by Mark Corder, Security Consultant, Cognitious Ltd (March 2018)