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Manchester terror attack and how to keep Australian public places safe from terror

By Jacinta Carroll

The United Kingdom's Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre has reviewed the threat environment in light of the Manchester bombing and raised the UK terrorism threat level to Critical – its highest level. This means an attack is expected imminently. The British Armed Forces are now being deployed in support of police in managing that risk.

Threat levels are informed by a variety of factors. An attack such as Manchester is one thing to consider, but also at play is the intent and capability of others to undertake similar attacks, intelligence assessments of current plots, and location. The challenge for those responsible for – or in the proximity of – areas that might be targeted, is how to get the right balance between security and access, as well as ensuring any measures put in place are actually addressing the security need.

One of the key questions now being asked is what the attack means for protecting stadiums and other large venues – like the 21,000-seat Manchester Arena – and more broadly how to protect large crowds.

Improving stadium security

As British authorities sift through the forensic evidence at the Manchester site, and work painstakingly through hours of CCTV and other information, they are building a picture of the attack: the type of explosive used, how the attackers accessed the arena and how they perpetrated the attack.

What they find will be crucial to inform and update our understanding of how to improve venue security.

Physical security, such as bollards and armed guards, are typically some of the first things under public discussion. But best practice event and public space security and safety looks at risk-managed and layered approaches, creating safe and resilient places and communities. This is the soft and smart side of security.

The temporary physical security arrangements being put in place in the UK – such as troops visibly on the streets supporting the police – make sense, as the country stands up its immediate capacity to deal with the assessed imminent threat. Similar judgments about enhanced security arrangements are being made by venue managers and authorities around Australia in relation to upcoming events. But these emergency arrangements should eventually end, and transition to sustainable enhanced arrangements begin.

It's vitally important that a strong risk-managed process is in place for any review of security arrangements both at venues and at other places of mass gathering. And the starting place for this is understanding the threat.

Nice, London, Manchester should prompt review

The good news is that this is a matter that venue managers are always focused on, working with police and other government counter-terrorism agencies, and the Australian experience to date has been that existing measures have proven sufficient to meet the threat. But security arrangements should remain under constant review, and be revised with a changing threat environment.

Australia does have guidelines on protecting places of mass gathering, developed by COAG's dedicated CT committee, the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee. The guidelines have been in place since 2011 and outline how jurisdictions should develop their own approaches.

But a commonwealth government review of lessons learned from last year's truck attack in Nice, France, found that national arrangements should go further, by developing a national strategy for Australia. This approach will bring in not only jurisdictions but the broader community, particularly business, who own and operate many major venues. Importantly, this will be supported by a common risk assessment approach. The national strategy is currently under development, and is slated for release later this year.

One of the game changers in Australia's terrorist environment occurred when Martin Place was in lockdown during the 2014 Sydney siege; this identified for many Australian businesses that the terrorist threat directly affected them and wasn't a matter only for government to manage.

Providing safe places

Christmas 2016's disrupted mass casualty plot to attack multiple venues in Melbourne's CBD reinforces that this is a shared threat with a shared responsibility to prepare and act.

Australia's CT agencies will continue to investigate individuals and groups seeking to harm Australia and Australia's interests. Based on the successful counter-terrorism operations to date, they will mostly succeed in disrupting planned attacks before they can come to fruition, and bring those responsible to justice.

But as we've seen in Manchester, in the current terrorist threat environment, those who seek to commit terrorist acts will continue to focus on doing as much harm as they can where and how they can. The key to defeating this is for business, government and the broader community to work together in providing safe and resilient public places.

Jacinta Carroll is head of the Counter Terrorism Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 24 May 2017