The suicide attack that took place this week (22/5/2017) in Manchester Arena brought us back to the horrors of the suicide bombing at the “Dolphinarium” dance club in Tel Aviv on June 1, 2001, in which 21 people were murdered, most of them teenagers who wanted to spend time in a dance club. On both attacks, the murderers blew themselves up in crowded spots outside the venue. This way, the terrorist achieves maximum killing and damage while avoiding any friction with the screening control at the entrance to the venue, if it exists.
Since we do not yet have investigative findings about the event, we can relate to the things as they appear in the media.
Although the level of security of the musical performance in Manchester is not yet fully known, it is reasonable to assume that at least stewards were put in charge of entry tickets inspection to prevent infiltration. It is doubtful whether there was a professional effort to detect suspects in the area. But even if there was one, the fact is that the murderer was waiting for the end of the performance and the influx of young people out of the venue (positioning himself in a narrow passage that confined and amplified the blast effect).
Three immediate lessons arise here in the context of security. One is the imperative need to place perimeter security, which would focus on detecting suspects in the outer circle for the duration of the event. The second is the need to transfer the weight of the security to the outer circle in order to securely disperse the audience. The third lesson is familiar to us from the English sentence, “It’s not over till it’s over” – the alertness drop at the end of the event, or the operation, is the opponent’s time to carry out the attack.
As for the conduct of an emergency following the explosion:
In the video clips published after the attack, the announcer was heard trying to calm the crowd after the explosion and instructed them to “evacuate slowly.” First, at this point in time, the consideration whether to allow or initiate evacuation of the public, is critical. Past experience shows that not long after an attack outside a facility, the opponent exploited the hysteric momentum of the crowd to carry out another terrorist attack.
Such were the attacks in Stade de France on November 2015. Three suicide bombers were involved in the attack. The first person who tried to enter the stadium was refused entery by the security guards and he exploded the charge not far from one of the entrances. The event managers decided to allow the game to continue. Ten minutes later, a second terrorist exploded himself on the next street and the third terrorist blew up 23 minutes later, also outside. An analysis of the events shows that the terrorists expected that after the first explosion the game would be ceased and the crowd would be evacuated from the stadium, and then the explosive devices could be used among the large crowd that would flow outside the stadium. Proper and calculated conduct by the security managers led to the decision not to stop the game and at the end of it to carry out a secure and orderly dispersion of the crowd. Looking back at the evacuation of the crowd in Manchester Arena, even if the attempt to direct the audience through the loudspeaker system was correct, it would not be useful or possible, in the absence of appropriate guidance by professional personnel controlling the crowd, and as we have seen, it is also here that panic dictated the course of events at this stage.
The issue of evacuation is one component of all security management operations and proactive preparedness for emergencies. We also saw this in past attacks by ISIS, such as the attack on New Year’s celebration at the Reina Club in Istanbul in January, when people jumped into the Bosporus through the windows. A similar situation occurred in the attack at the Bataclan Theater in Paris, when the attackers were already inside the theater, the main openings were blocked and escape was required through secondary openings. In the absence of these, people had to jump out of the windows to the sea. Early planning is necessary to prevent such situations. The means of directing, announcing and signaling emergency situations, as well as the appropriate practice and training should include the permanent staff, which is a power multiplier and a significant addition to emergency response.
The British intelligence has shown an impressive ability to thwart terror attacks in the past. It seems that in this case the attack went under the radar. In the absence of intelligence and in light of the reasonable assessment that there is an active terrorist infrastructure in the area that could carry out additional attacks in the immediate term, the British Prime Minister ordered the immediate deployment of 3,500 soldiers and police forces following a procedure set up after the terrorist attacks in 2015, particularly in sensitive locations in London, with the aim of thwarting possible attacks. There is no dispute that this military/police presence creates a certain deterrent, but this is not enough to foil an attack.
Securing crowded events from terrorist threats is a major security challenge. The need to screen an audience at the perimeter of the event necessitates a considerable investment in the allocation of skilled personnel, as well as time planning so as not to disrupt the event – which ultimately is the main issue, and continues with the proper security mapping of the area by placing the technological means necessary to assist in screening the audience and for surveillance.
In recent years there has been a significant increase in deployment of security technologies. There is no doubt that this is a significant improvement and a welcome addition required to achieve an efficient security at a higher professional level. At the same time, it must be noted that no good technology can be used to address all security problems. In the end, a qualified, skilled and professional human resource is required to detect and deal with the suspects approaching the crowd, preferably in the early stages of the pre-attack intelligence collection, in order to succeed in the prevention of an attack.
Event management is a profession in itself that includes the security, safety and management elements of the various event components, with the ideal situation being an event managed by one central body.
As stated, the security of crowded events will continue to be a significant challenge in light of its attractiveness in the eyes of the opponent and the way he views the event as a soft and easy target to attack. Only an appropriate combination of targeted intelligence accompanied by appropriate security deployment would allow the required response to thwart the opponent’s actions.
Meir Gershuni is a former senior member of the Israeli Security Agency and owns a security consulting company.