Friday, 5 September 2014

An Anonymous Look Inside NATO's Ring of Steel

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
"The fear is that our next greatest export is extremism." - Anonymous

This week, the visuals of Cardiff and Newport have emulated scenes from a disaster movie, a torn warzone, and a gritty crime drama. Let's not forget my favourite comparison: Jurassic Park. There are 12 miles of steel fencing surrounding the area, and the closed roads have become a wind tunnel of stony silence outside Cardiff Castle during the hours of Thursday morning. At least, that was until the working dinner held at the Castle later that evening, where the street was sieged by protesters and interested locals. Several arrests were made during the evening, and one could sense the sheer paranoia that shadowed the event. If you looked in one direction, you had marches from police horses, and in another you had snipers in place.

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image, cardiff castle

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
As the Summit gained momentum, there have been armed police stalking every street, and it's a scene so rare that I witnessed them getting Instagrammed with their very own army of fans.  There are 6 warships, helicopters, over 1,500 members of the media, and 10,000 support staff. We have adapted to the brash sounds of helicopters and sirens, and we've even talked to the police in the area as if they are our friends. The air is consumed by executive power, and we are breathing it in everyday. For some, we relish the hysteric drama and vibrant theatre of the heightened security, and it's an event so historic for Wales that we're too invested in it's status to pay much attention to anything else. Although, maybe that's a good thing.
NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
Anti NATO Protesters in Cardiff. Image my own.
NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
Image my own.

Yet, it has some of us feeling twitchy. Although we feel as though these are necessary precautions, they are also seen by some as over cautious and extreme. However, there could be legitimate reason to take these security measures seriously, as a global event such as NATO could attract severe threats due to the spectacular nature of the Summit itself. Especially with a dominant figure head such as President Obama, whose reputation abroad is considered more celebrity than political. President Obama is the Commander in Chief and this will mark the first official presidential visit to Wales. Obama's status precedes him, and where he goes so will the watchful and analytical eyes of the world- whether to fiercely criticise, or quietly idolise, their eyes follow.

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
The Presidential motorcade leaves Cardiff Castle. Image my own.
Our safety and security awareness is also peaked by the looming threat of the Islamic State, following the brutal beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. During his visit to Estonia on Wednesday, President Barack Obama commented that “Our objective is clear, and that is: degrade and destroy ISIL so that it’s no longer a threat, not just to Iraq but also to the region and to the United States," and that "The United States will continue to lead a regional and international effort against the kind of barbaric and ultimately empty vision that ISIL represents." 

I spoke to a soldier within the British Armed Forces about the security of the NATO Summit and it's primary concerns, and due to confidential information he has chosen to remain anonymous. Although I cannot disclose his position, I can tell you that he hears a substantial amount of information, both civilian and military.

NATO summit 2014 image, cardiff, wales, obama image
Image my own.
When I asked about the Armed Forces role within the security measures, I was told that "We are not the main driver behind this bus. Our presence is a facade, although we are fully equipped to deal with the worst case scenario. There are internal issues and politics within our service, and so the police have sole focus on this event. This is not our game play, but there is a justified amount of security in place. Although I do believe that if overzealous we would have a bigger presence."

What do you feel is the biggest threat to either the Summit or the city?

"ISIS. They definitely have us cautious. We are very aware of homegrown terrorism, and the NATO Summit has opened everyone's eyes to the possibility of an attack. We are prepared for it, though."

Have there been any credible threats at this point that you are aware of?

"There have been two accounts within the incident reports. We had one suspect of Middle Eastern origin, dressed in Islamic dress and taking photos of security barriers late at night. There was also a report from The Park Plaza Hotel in Cardiff. This report stated that the manager was questioned by three Asian men aged 18-35, regarding rooms on the second and third floors facing The Hilton- which is where delegates will be during the Summit.  These aren't being treated as high priority, due to the celebrity nature of the event it could just be enthusiasts seeking information. But with our national terrorism level now being measured as severe, we have to monitor all strange behaviour."

We discussed the amount of criticism that has come from local residents regarding the amount of precautions in place, and I asked if their reaction was slightly premature and ill informed. He told me that that it is more of a case of being under informed than ill informed, and that the information available to civilians "feels doctored."

Does our heightened security within Wales put the rest of the United Kingdom at greater risk? Could there be an attack elsewhere that we wouldn't see coming, or would a possible threat be contained to NATO?

"I don't think the rest of the nation is at all hindered, everybody is on high alert."

So you think that any threat would be targeted on a grander scale, linked with the publicized event of the NATO Summit?

"Yes, although there's no way anyone is getting into The Celtic Manor in Newport. The threats themselves would be towards surrounding areas. If you look at attacks from extremist predecessors, they have all geared towards public places."

Is ignorance a kindness in an age of homemade explosives and homegrown terrorism? It could be said that ignorance is in our own best interest. We could also argue that while we are without this information that we will not succumb to the controlled extremist tool of fear as we go about our daily lives. But this can also hinder our essential awareness. After all, how can we look for something when we are blindfolded? Our general ignorance and naivety towards terrorism does nothing to prepare us for the future. We never want to believe it's in our own back gardens. We can even see the precautionary measures, they are in our streets, skies and sea, yet we're still fighting through the weight of bubble wrap to see the true necessity of their presence.

I also wondered why the media wasn't fully upping it's game. Unlike previous moral panics such as video nasties or international disasters such as 9/11, the media industry didn't seem to be capitalising on the security measures and the threat of IS. There seemed to be a substantial amount of information that people were not aware of, especially as I scoured my social media feeds for something other than the general mass of complaints towards the disruption of individual daily routines.

There is the likely possibility that the absence of information is due to national security. The less we know, the better we might be. Confidential information is labelled as such for a reason, yet due to our lack of knowledge surrounding the threats of the NATO summit, it seems that this glocalised issue revolves less around the violent and chaotic possibilities, and more about our own inconvenience. 

It was also a possibility that the information that had been divulged was both misused and misunderstood. While local residents may think the security measures are a show and tell of power, they may not see the direct threat to the UK. This is more than national and international services flexing a bit of muscle. We need to host events like NATO, but we need to compromise and understand the risks that it will bring. Approximately 500 Britons have joined forced with the group in Syria and Northern Iraq, a consequence of being force fed a vicious ideology.

It is believed that NATO will split it's focus between Russia and the Islam State conflicts. IS is considered an imminent threat if not managed correctly, and both President Obama and David Cameron pledged to find resolution during the Summit on Thursday.

Do you think we have the best access to information regarding possible threats? 

"No. There is a lot of social friction, and we're so committed to equality and freedom of speech that we're afraid to speak out from fear of being branded as racist or bigots. This goes for the media, who kind of tip toe around it. We do have profiling methods, and we do know what we are looking for. I am Asian, an I accept that. We are not branding a community as being susceptible to corruption or extremism, but it comes down to statistics."

Does he think we're enforced by the dominant ideology  of the West that we need to be tolerant?

"Yes, but we need to also look at the facts. We need to be tolerant, and we need to co exist and be the image of acceptance. This isn't about racism, it's about statistics. It's not about immigration, it's about security."

He also tells me that three Asians within their regiments have been threatened, and are feeling unnerved and intimidated by their own communities. They are cautiously aware of the threats that surround them, and the negative reputation of both the Army and their own community. They don't want to be seen in uniform, and they are encouraged to be seen in civilian clothing and alter their routines, due to the backlash they receive from joining the Armed Forces. He doesn't seem particularly shocked by it, although the rest of us should be. He seems accepting of the prejudice that clouds the services, and of the distaste that lingers in the judgmental mouth. He's there to do a job, but must operate in conditions in which he may be branded a racist, or a traitor. 

He discusses with me the idea of walking home at night. He is aware that if he is alone and a woman is in front of him, she is cold and uneasy. He will call his partner and cross the road to put her mind at ease. I share my own experience of walking through Butetown and checking over my shoulder on the final side street towards my home. Stereotyping- we all do it (although we try desperately to avoid it), because it's basic human instinct to protect ourselves. 

It made me uneasy to consider the profiling. I checked on several occasions that the men in the incident reports were Asian. I started to feel aware that this was delicate information, in which I needed to discuss facts without sounding moronic and judgmental. There was no discreet way to discuss this, but the damage being done to Islam by the general public is very little. The negativity and prejudice that surrounds these communities stems from the aggressive behaviour of the small number of extremists, and the innocent members of their community inevitably suffer the consequences. 

If we are informed and if we are aware, then why are we still complaining about the Ring of Steel? Cardiff and Newport may be operating like a high security hamster cage, but it's a tenacious force of protection. It is evidence that the United Kingdom is equipped to deal with monumental security operations. We wonder if we are too engrossed on how we're stuck in traffic that we care so very little. Ignorance, it's the most damaging force to an individual, and a nation.