29 June 2023

Let’s not overstate the threat of village hall jihadis – but don’t underestimate it either


This week village halls have been projected into the front lines of our battle to control the scourge of terrorism. This will be worrying news to the thousands of volunteers like me across the country who are more used to fighting local government bureaucracy than violent extremists.

There has been excitable, not to say sometimes unhinged, reporting around the introduction of draft legislation to require private venues to toughen their defences against the threat of bombers and marauding gunmen. ‘Martyn’s Law’ was finally introduced by Government after a concerted campaign by Figen Murray who lost her son in the 2015 Manchester Arena atrocity. The initiative bears his name and is testimony to one woman’s determination to make some sense from the senseless murder of her beloved son by making it a legal duty for providers of venues of over 100 people to take steps to reduce the risk of a terrorist attack.

This eminently sensible proposal has caught the attention of metropolitan newspapers and headline hungry politicians who have hitherto expressed little concern over the yards of red tape that strangle almost every activity village halls put on. The Daily Mail reported that ‘Thousands of village halls across Britain face possible closure’ if they were forced to adopt such draconian measures as to commit a couple of hours of thought to ways to make it a bit more difficult for a rampaging gunman to get in. Tim Loughton MP, who has obviously never experienced the mental torture of a Lottery fund application or interpreting the licencing act for a WI meeting felt this imposition would be the final ‘nail in the coffin’ for ‘much loved community hubs’. Yeah, try getting decent wifi or economical space heaters fitted mate. Then you’ll see we’re made of sterner stuff. 

This silly grandstanding hides an important point though which was in fact advanced – rather breathlessly it has to be said – in evidence at the draft Bill scrutiny phase in parliament by one village hall chair. She rightly said that overzealous regulation of small venues, so critical to rural life, in the face of a vanishingly unlikely risk, would in effect fulfil one of the terrorist’s primary objectives – to make life worse and places more fearful.

Terrorists hate normality. We must always guard against overreaction. A securitised society with constraints on our freedom is a win for ideological extremists who must do everything they can to subvert liberal democracy. However, this is not an invitation to complacency. Sir David Amess was murdered by an Islamist terrorist inside Belfairs Methodist Church Hall in Leigh-On-Sea – precisely the sort of community hub that is the social glue of many towns and villages across Britain. The most outrageous crime was committed in a banal, benign venue where the local Slimming World met. It somehow compounded the horror. Jaques Hamel, the French priest was murdered by Islamists at the altar of his church in a quiet suburb of Rouen in Normandy. In provincial Exeter, a radicalised suicide bomber was only prevented from inflicting mass casualties in a small restaurant by the failure of his device to fully go off. Contemporary terrorism does not confine itself to iconic city targets. Indeed, it would be far more rational – in the mind of the attacker – to eschew hardened targets for more vulnerable places where people gather such as our seaside towns and where armed response is often far away and people are less alert. The prize of making nowhere seem safe is huge. And hugely underestimated in my opinion.

This is precisely why Sir John Saunders, the Chairman of the Manchester Arena Bomb Inquiry, recommended what has now become draft law. Speaking about the failures of the police and event organisers to anticipate and plan for a terrorist attack that murdered 22 youngsters and parents, he said this:

‘Inadequate consideration of that risk may result in incorrectly identifying a low risk. This in turn may cause those responsible for security to be insufficiently alert. That is what occurred here.’

Saunders was clear that a balance had to be struck between sensible measures to train staff in public venues on how to deter, spot or stop potential terrorists, and strictures that would do the terrorists job for them. Proportionate controls depending on the size of the venue were key. Making people feel safer without onerous burdens on businesses is the aim. In that sense, Government must step up here to mitigate any excessive costs and ensure that precautionary measures keep process as a means not an end. We cannot allow this much needed law to become a cash cow for unscrupulous opportunists to create and exploit a ‘fear market’. Allowing people to feel safe when they are out in public is a repudiation of everything terrorists stand for. It also happens to be a fundamental duty of national Government.

The chances of a terrorist attack on a village hall are extremely low. Dealing with the prospect of the occasional tipsy Morris dancer would dwarf the hazard violent extremists present. Those of us who work in the risk business know that too much prescription is almost as bad as none at all because the results can be identical. But that’s just the sort of thinking that can be tragically exploited by deranged people, whether by ideology or simple hatred. A quiet suburb of Plymouth, a peaceful children’s playpark in Annecy, a student area of Nottingham. Unfortunately, places where we should feel most relaxed are already violated by brutality. Such events still seem distant even as they occur with regularity. Road accidents claim more lives in a week than terrorists do in a year. Yet the impact of terrorism is both cruelly intimate and nationally catastrophic. The people left without children after the Manchester atrocity bear witness to what happens when the unthinkable becomes a dreadful reality. When we think, then act like ‘it could never happen here’. We must plan for the world we live in now to achieve the world as we want it to be.

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Professor Ian Acheson is Senior Advisor to the Counter Extremism Project.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.