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A Watchful Public Is the Best Line of Defense Against Sabotage

As Russian efforts grow, Europeans need better education in security.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Gas emanates from a leak on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea on Sept. 27. Swedish Coast Guard via Getty Images

First there was the suspected sabotage directed against Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. Then not one but four Russians were arrested in Norway after flying drones and making voluminous documentation. Then the internet cable that provides telephone, broadband, and cell phone service for Britain’s Shetland Islands was mysteriously cut. In the middle of conflict with Russia, and growing tensions with other powerful states, countries need to keep a closer eye on their airports, power plants, and other sensitive installations. And that is not just a task for the government. Ordinary citizens are a formidable resource when it comes to spotting untoward activities, and it is in their interest to help keep their countries safe.

One of the Russians detained in Norway had been photographing the airport in the far north town of Kirkenes. He was arrested after a member of the public concluded that something was not right. When the police went through his belongings, they found photos of both civilian and military aircraft. The police officers arresting the other Russian found him traveling with three passports and lots of photos, in many cases encrypted. But he also told the police that he had been in the country since August.

Yet another Russian, the fourth one arrested in recent weeks, is the son of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Vladimir Yakunin. Andrey Yakunin was arrested after flying a drone along the Norwegian coast from a private boat. (In true oligarch fashion, the arrested Yakunin reminded the Norwegian authorities that he is also a British citizen and a resident of Italy.) Norwegian authorities have also spotted drones flying near oil installations. At some point, probably earlier this year, someone planted explosives in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 that caused them to explode in four places on Sept. 27. And on Oct. 20, the undersea cable that provides Shetland with broadband, telephone, and cell phone service was damaged by an unknown perpetrator.

First there was the suspected sabotage directed against Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2. Then not one but four Russians were arrested in Norway after flying drones and making voluminous documentation. Then the internet cable that provides telephone, broadband, and cell phone service for Britain’s Shetland Islands was mysteriously cut. In the middle of conflict with Russia, and growing tensions with other powerful states, countries need to keep a closer eye on their airports, power plants, and other sensitive installations. And that is not just a task for the government. Ordinary citizens are a formidable resource when it comes to spotting untoward activities, and it is in their interest to help keep their countries safe.

One of the Russians detained in Norway had been photographing the airport in the far north town of Kirkenes. He was arrested after a member of the public concluded that something was not right. When the police went through his belongings, they found photos of both civilian and military aircraft. The police officers arresting the other Russian found him traveling with three passports and lots of photos, in many cases encrypted. But he also told the police that he had been in the country since August.

Yet another Russian, the fourth one arrested in recent weeks, is the son of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ally Vladimir Yakunin. Andrey Yakunin was arrested after flying a drone along the Norwegian coast from a private boat. (In true oligarch fashion, the arrested Yakunin reminded the Norwegian authorities that he is also a British citizen and a resident of Italy.) Norwegian authorities have also spotted drones flying near oil installations. At some point, probably earlier this year, someone planted explosives in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 that caused them to explode in four places on Sept. 27. And on Oct. 20, the undersea cable that provides Shetland with broadband, telephone, and cell phone service was damaged by an unknown perpetrator.

Western countries must now worry about further attacks on their critical national infrastructure. That matters because sabotage of even, say, one power line or internet cable would cause considerable harm, not to mention panic. Shetlanders can now attest to the effects of damaged undersea communications cables. That means that countries need to keep a closer eye on their crucial infrastructure and other sensitive installations. But the authorities cannot handle all of this, or even more than a fraction of it. Not even the best-funded government can be everywhere, all the time, nor would that be good use of taxpayer money.

And it is not even necessary. With national security threats expanding far beyond military attacks, the world of the security-conscious should comprise not just the government but ordinary citizens as well. Citizens are more than capable of keeping an eye out for national security threats much like the Norwegian member of the public did at Kirkenes Airport earlier this month. Members of the public assisting the armed forces and the rest of the government was reality of daily life during World War II. In the United Kingdom, for example, ordinary citizens took on duties as air-raid wardens, and the whole population was encouraged—in constant public awareness campaigns—to watch their mouths and to report anything suspicious.

And in some cases, the civic engagement continued. In 1981, two ordinary Swedes—fishermen out at sea before dawn—were the first to spot a mysterious submarine just off the coast of a military base in southeast Sweden. They alerted the Navy, whose vessels discovered that it was a Soviet submarine and that it had run aground. “When we were hunting submarines in the eighties and nineties, the public’s support was absolutely essential, and it was the same during the 2014 submarine hunt,” retired Rear Adm. Anders Grenstad, a former chief of the Swedish Navy, told me. “And there is potential for same kind of support from the public regarding new threats today.”

Strengthened by this history of citizen support, Grenstad’s organization has been testing the current waters for such citizen participation involving all manner of threats. Last spring the Swedish Navy, under the command of current chief Rear Adm. Ewa Skoog Haslum, launched a public awareness campaign encouraging Swedes to keep their eyes open in the same way the British police do with their “see it, say it, sorted” campaigns for terrorist threats. “Does everything look the way it usually does?” the campaign posters ask. “If not, let us know.”

“If there is a threat to Sweden, we want citizens to feel that it is important for them to do their part to keep that threat away,” Anders Engkvist, head of security for the Swedish Navy and the man behind the initiative, told me. “It is a way in which people can feel they are contributing.” Since the initiative launched, the Swedish Navy has received a steady stream of alerts from the public. Today it is, of course, much easier to report suspicious sightings because everyone has a smartphone and indeed a camera with which they can document what they are seeing. Engkvist and his team has had to remind people, though, to try to get important details such as license plates on their photos, or to write the details down. Civic participation in national security has to be taught, especially after three peaceful decades.

And people can only report suspicious behavior near sensitive sites if they know where to look. For some installations, like power plants, that is clear, but there are plenty of other sites that governments might want to keep secret even from the public. For similar reasons, the Swedish military has not specified what kind of suspicious behavior might occur, as that would influence the perception for citizens of what to look for. “The best approach is just to ask people to report things that just do not look right,” Engkvist explained.

To be sure, observation initiatives bring their own challenges. The public might get overzealous and report large volumes of sightings that turn out to be useless, simply because they want to do their part. Others may deliberately call in false leads to overburden the program. Things can go very wrong when working off the wrong info, like the time in 1973 that Mossad agents shot and killed a Moroccan waiter in northern Norway after mistaking him for the Palestine Liberation Organization mastermind of the killings of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. After having been tipped off that the mastermind, Hassan Salameh, was in Norway, the Mossad seems to have been less than judicious in trying to identify the few Middle Eastern residents in northern Norway.

Countries now needing to keep a collective eye on their infrastructure should also learn from Sweden in helping citizens get in touch. (Indeed, they may soon be able to learn even more: The new Swedish government has just added a pioneering post for a minister of civil defense, held by 36-year-old Carl Oskar Bohlin of the Moderate Party.) “In the eighties we had stickers on our military cars that said, ‘Have you seen something? This is the number to call,’” Grenstad noted. “That is what happened in 1981. The fishermen knew whom to call.”

Indeed, asking the public to call in their sightings to the standard emergency number would not just be a wasted effort but a counterproductive one. “If people just call the emergency number, the tips risk being lost in the volume of calls that come in,” Grenstad said. “They have to know there is a number they should call if they notice something, and that someone will follow up with them. Otherwise, they will give up.” But with a dedicated phone number and corresponding email address in place, and with officers ready to follow up on citizen leads, imagine the potential for early detection.

Indeed, allowing citizens to play a role, however small, in keeping their countries safe empowers them rather than forcing them to watch the increasingly frightening news without agency to do anything about it. And with such involvement in place, Western governments can signal to the Russians, and whoever else might want to harm them, that they have an army of citizens who take pride in keeping an eye on their surroundings. That would cause the prospective aggressor to think twice about attempting any aggression. Citizen involvement is a powerful form of deterrence waiting to be deployed.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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