Security cannot be guaranteed but resilient responses can…

The detonation of two improvised explosive devices in Boston at the end of its marathon course serve to illustrate both the limits of security at sporting events where large number of spectators gather in an unrestricted manner, as well as the importance of resiliency planning. Writing in The Times in 2009 in the wake of the attack against the Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009 in Lahore sports journalist Simon Barnes noted ‘sport is the world’s great soft target, yet has led a relatively charmed life . . . until now’. He continued by noting that it is hard to work out why this is the case:

‘Sport, with its huge crowds and big spaces, is essentially insecure. Sport is already a stage and the world is watching. All a terrorist has to do is alter the script and the publicity in the world is his to command’.

More generally when dealing with issues concerning security and counter-terrorism it is now well understood by state security forces that the modus operandi of terrorist groups has altered with many seeking mass civilian casualties and prepared to use unconventional no-warning attacks. In particular, there appears to be a trend towards attacks tactically aimed at soft targets such as hospitals, schools, shopping promenades, and more generally crowded places. These targets of choice – crowded areas – have certain features in common, most notably their easy accessibility that cannot be altered without radically changing citizens’ experience of these largely public places. In the UK, such crowded places are now defined by the Home Office as ‘sites [which] are regarded as locations or environments to which members of the public have access that, on the basis of intelligence, credible threat or terrorist methodology, may be considered potentially liable to terrorist attack by virtue of their crowd density’. This definition therefore covers not only sports stadia but locations hosting sporting events.

 The fear of this type of targeting is setting new challenges for state security agencies and local emergency responders. It often leads to reactive and protective counter-terror response through the employment of overt security features and policing – as notably seen during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. However, with regard to the Boston attack, despite rigorous security preparation it would be neigh on impossible to guarantee total security for over 26 miles of largely accessible public space. Given the type of attack which appears to have taken place there would also have been only a very limited role for built-in or technological security in actually preventing the attack.

 In the aftermath of the bombing it was the target – the crowd – that were asked by the agencies of security to become ‘citizen detectives’ and send in any photographs of the attack scene in the hope that intelligence can be gleaned from them. It is also clear from the post-event reaction of the emergency services that contingency planning for an array of disruptive challenges had been put in place and that their response was exemplary. In both cases resilience can be seen to be co-produced amongst a range of statutory and non-statutory ‘actors’.

 Once the dust has settled on this tragic incident we should reflect on how we respond in the short and medium term – not in the reactionary and speculative way that characterised some media reports – but in a balanced and proportionate way so as not to generate undue anxiety whist reassuring the public that all is being done to apprehend suspect and learn from the incident. Here the search for urban resilience through security is as much about preparing for and having the capability and capacity to respond to such incidents if they do occur as it is about attempting to restrict the possibilities of such incidents occurring in order to mitigate damage and impact. Intelligence gathering clearly has a key role to play in attempting to thwart such attacks but this cannot guarantee 100% security: we live in a word where such risk exists and where terrorists can elicit fear and provoke an overreaction. Getting the balance right between security and a vibrant urbanism is not an easy calculation but one we should strive for if we are not to let those that wish to do us harm win.

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