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Protecting crowded places from terror

By Anthony Bergin

Just as in Manchester, Australia’s homegrown terrorists want to use improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Late last year one of the largest terrorist plots in the country’s history was foiled. A group was planning to detonate IEDs at locations in central Melbourne, possibly on Christmas Day.

Australia’s Gen Y jihadists wouldn’t find it that hard to get explosives. Each year over one million kilograms of ammonium nitrate based explosives is sold in the country, not to mention all the related packaged explosives and detonating systems. On top of that, commercial explosives have been known to go missing, sometimes in large quantities.

The Manchester terrorism atrocity once again highlights the vulnerability of mass gatherings. Whether it’s a sporting or entertainment venue or a public transport hub, where there are big crowds in accessible places they’ll be potential targets for a terrorist attack.

Risk and vulnerability can never be completely mitigated for any mass gathering: there’s no such thing as perfect security.

As Jacinta Carroll has rightly pointed out: “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.”

We need to consider options to enhance physical security to make future events safer. That means we also need to ensure greater deterrence to signify that a gathering is protected. Metal detectors, as well as (see-through) bag inspections, will become more common, as will a heavier specially trained police presence at mass gatherings.

Former New South Wales deputy police commissioner Nick Kaldas has, for example, called for Australia to consider emulating New York’s “Hercules” tactical response heavily-armed teams who attend events with large crowds based on intelligence about possible threats.

Australia, though, has different legal arrangements from Britain where, as a temporary measure, the military is being deployed for certain events and other crowded public places in order to release armed police for other policing duties.

The country will also need security guards not to let people into event venues as patrons leave: the terrorist in Manchester exploded the bomb in the concert hall foyer as people were exiting the concert. The foyer was just outside the venue’s doors, a space that connects the arena to a nearby railway station. The reality is that there’ll always be some vulnerability just outside the security checkpoint: the company that manages the arena has stated that it wasn’t responsible for policing that space. Airlocks may need to be considered at sports and entertainment venues as are in place at airports.

Australia needs to take a fresh look at the improvised explosive device guidelines for places of mass gathering that were issued in April last year by the Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee. The guidance is aimed at helping those who operate places of mass gatherings to be more aware of the threat that IEDs pose and provide guidance on risk mitigation options.

But the guidance is pretty generic, and so of limited benefit to event managers on how to recognise, assess, and respond to IED incidents.

Managers, for example, are surely already aware of their responsibility to “save and protect life, facilitate the evacuation of those at risk, contain the incident or threat, and support emergency response and investigation activities”? They surely know that “trained staff should be used as evacuation marshals”?

There’s a lack of practical guidance provided on how effective security outcomes can be applied to improve counter-IED measures. There’s no attempt to spell out, for example, how to identify, assess and rate vulnerabilities at various types of mass gathering places.

On the response side, the guidelines aren’t helpful either. In relation to immediate health effects, the document refers to “injuries” and “people hurt”. But multiple fatalities and a correspondingly larger number of casualties can be expected from an explosion. Many blast injuries won’t be immediately apparent.

Surprisingly, the guidelines focus on vehicle-borne explosives: there’s no guidance provided on how to create stand-off from locations where personal borne IEDs are deployed, as occurred in Manchester. (The ‘stand-off distance’ is that between the asset being protected and the area where an IED could be placed. When it comes to blast, distance is our friend: every metre of stand-off counts in mitigating the effects of a blast.) This is something that should be addressed in a new national strategy on protecting mass gatherings. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said his government is working with the states and international counterparts to develop such a strategy that’s expected to be released later this year.

Unless the police are on site for a specific event, the detection, assessment, and response to an IED will be done by staff at the event. With that in mind, now is the time for some new advice from our security agencies on how searches should be structured.

Finally, as I argued recently, we’re going to have to get better at realistic response exercises to test our response capabilities. The most recent one was SydEx 2016, a large-scale field test held last August that focused on the crash of a large airliner near Sydney airport. But the exercise didn’t test the logistics of transport through a gridlocked panicked city (it was undertaken on a Sunday), overcrowded emergency departments, or movement of cases through Sydney hospitals.

In developing the national strategy to protect mass gatherings it’s critical that business, venue operators and private security professionals be engaged. Practical public sector expertise in protecting places of mass gatherings is minimal.

Dr Anthony Bergin is a senior research fellow at the ANU National Security College, and senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI). 

Originally published by: APPS Policy Forum on 29 May 2017