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EU project studying “pinch points” to deflect lone wolf attacks

By CHRIS DALBY, with BROOKS TIGNER

BRUSSELS – Europe faces a daunting mix of terrorist threats, from groups to so-called “lone wolf” antagonists acting alone. And as the infamous assault-weapon murder of 69 people in July 2011 by a Norwegian right-winger bloodily demonstrated, lone actor extremist events (LAEEs) can be just as devastating as those planned by larger cells.

One group of researchers is looking into the complicated issue of how, once an LAEE starts, to identify decision points that manipulate its outcome to minimise or avoid the intended death and destruction. The group is called PRIME – “PReventing, Interdicting and Mitigating Extremist events: Defending against lone actor extremism”.

Launched in May 2014, PRIME is a three-year EU-funded project with a total budget of EUR 3.6 million, of which the EU contributed 78 percent. It aims to deliver “a knowledge-base to inform the design of measures to defend against lone actor extremism”. The purpose is to develop a ‘mechanism-based approach’ to crime prevention, says Noemie Bouhana, PRIME’s project coordinator and senior lecturer at University College London,

“We realised that this sounds very abstract to practitioners who are not going to understand what the mechanism is because they just want more concrete information,” she told SECURITY EUROPE. “So we are going to try to marry this mechanical approach to the approach in crime prevention which is called crime scripting.’”

Scripting is often used in crime prevention regarding high-volume violations such as robbery or car theft. It involves collecting data on the crimes to create a script, much like a scenario, but one that is not merely narrative but which tries to model the data to identify a specific ‘pinch point’ or intervention point.

Pinch points are critical junctures during an event which, if influenced, could change the event’s outcome. They are things “done differently in the situation or in the decision made by the offender which could have been changed by someone on the outside,” said Bouhana. She added, however, that applying the script notion to high-impact, low-probability events such as lone actor terrorism is unlikely to lead to anything significant because there isn’t enough data for the modelling.

As a solution PRIME wants to combine “a kind of geo-mechanical model that I produced for my earlier work with the [UK’s] Home Office with the crime script approach. This would allow us to model the information in a way that would be more concrete and, we hope, of some use for decision makers who have to prevent the radicalisation of lone actor terrorists, disrupt them when preparing an attack, or mitigate the consequences if it is not possible to intervene in the first two phases.”

According to Bouhana PRIME’s research will not aim to pre-determine who should intervene during identified pinch points. Instead, it will describe the different ways that intervention would be possible, without listing the exact counter-measures to take, plus the associated constraints.

“For example, there is no point advising people to install CCTV cameras everywhere if it is not legally possible to do so. So we elicit all of the possible constraints that one has to take into account, whether legal, cultural or political, before intervening at a specific point”, she explained.

The project hopes to deliver a product relevant to all countries of the EU. However, their different legal and cultural environments mean it will be “impossible to say that ‘X’ is exactly what action has to be taken. So the project is instead looking to list what are the functional and non-functional requirements for counter-measures when it some to LAEEs,” she observed.

     THE UPSHOT: This is a tough research project to assess. There has already been more than enough EU-supported research on the root causes of radicalisation and proposed counter-prevention solutions. Presumably PRIME will steer carefully around those areas.
     What new research results it intends to bring to the sector is not yet clear to the disinterested outside observer. The notion of hanging a framework of legal or technical “red and green lights” around each pinch point in pre-scripted terrorist-event scenarios does have a certain intellectual elegance. However, one is also tempted to note this could just be a fancy academic way of saying that practitioners need to study their intervention options across a wide diversity of possible terrorist situations.
     One supposes that the immense data-gathering capacity of digital technologies combined with pinch-point analysis will set PRIME’s researchers apart from the crowd. If so, then the conclusion of this project and the presentation of its results will be eagerly awaited by practitioners themselves.

About Chris Dalby

Chris Dalby is deputy editor and webmaster at SECURITY EUROPE. He can be reached at: cd@securityeurope.info

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