Arena exits present security challenges, experts say after Manchester attack

Police stand guard at dawn, after a blast at the Manchester Arena Tuesday, May 23, 2017. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

As British authorities investigate the bombing at Manchester Arena that left at least 22 people dead following an Ariana Grande concert Monday, experts say the attack underscores the vulnerability of exit points of soft targets to terrorism and the difficulty of securing them.

Investigators now believe 22-year-old Salman Abedi detonated an explosive device as concertgoers streamed out of the arena following Grande’s last song. Although ISIS has claimed responsibility, investigators are still looking for evidence of a motive and trying to determine whether Abedi received any training or assistance.

The explosion occurred in a foyer near the area where the arena connects to the adjacent Victoria Station. In addition to young fans leaving the concert, there were parents there waiting to pick up kids who attended. One of the identified victims of the blast was an 8-year-old girl.

British Prime Minister Theresa May decried the “appalling, sickening cowardice” of targeting a concert attended by families and young children.

“We now know that a single terrorist detonated his improvised explosive device near one of the exits of the venue, deliberately choosing the time and place to cause maximum carnage and to kill and injure indiscriminately,” she said in a statement early Tuesday.

Security experts believe Abedi or an accomplice likely conducted surveillance on the arena beforehand to determine when and where to strike.

“He chose a perfect spot to detonate that device,” said Fred Burton, chief security officer for global intelligence firm Stratfor.

According to Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official, the exit of an arena at the end of a concert attended by children presented “a perfect storm of events” that maximized the potential casualties and minimized the opportunity to stop the attack.

There are inherent challenges in securing the type of arena where stars like Grande often perform.

“Most of them are in some type of oval or circular pattern, and as a result of that, large numbers of people are funneled in very particular ways,” said Anthony Roman, president of Roman & Associates, an international investigation and risk management firm.

Within the arena, there are typically long corridors with multiple entrances to the seating area where crowds cannot move in or out quickly.

“That creates a large number of choke points,” Roman said.

Past terrorist plots have involved detonating one explosive inside an event and a second attack at an exit. That possibility is always a concern in assessing risk and security needs.

In recent years, security professionals have gotten better at hardening event venues themselves with more aggressive screening and other measures.

“Now the softer target is on the outside of the venue,” said Richard Morman, a certified sports security professional and former deputy chief of the Ohio State University Police Division. Searching ticketholders at the gates does nothing to protect the people in the parking lot coming and going or tailgating.

“Security should not end at the conclusion of the event,” he added. “Your event security should remain in place until the spectators and other individuals are clear from the event and the area.”

In Manchester on Monday night, it is unclear how thorough security measures were.

Several attendees have complained in interviews and on social media that security at the concert was lax and ticketholders were not sufficiently screened. Manchester college student Joe Ryan wrote in a Washington Post blog post that the bag check he underwent was “ridiculous.”

“Their ‘exam’ consisted of opening the bag, having a three-second glance, then feeling the exterior of the bag before allowing people to enter,” he said.

Whether that anecdotal evidence is representative of the arena’s security efforts overall may prove irrelevant. Manchester Arena claimed in a statement on Monday that “the incident took place outside the venue in a public space.”

Experts say exits to soft target locations can make enticing targets for terrorists.

During the 2015 Paris attacks, two suicide bombers struck near the gates of the Stade de France while thousands watched the French and German soccer teams play inside. One had been turned away by a security guard moments before he detonated. A third bomber blew himself up outside a nearby McDonald’s.

“It’s a perfect target area because you have people funneling out into a location,” Burton said.

There are similar problems at the entry and exit points of airports where people and vehicles are unscreened and crowds of potential victims are gathered.

In January, a gunman killed five people in the baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. In 2016, terrorists struck outside the terminal security checkpoints at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul.

The danger extends beyond the terminal or the arena. Roman observed that cars are often allowed to park within the fertilizer bomb blast zone of a venue without any screening. An explosion in the parking lot could still damage the facility and cause casualties.

“There are always points where all of us will be vulnerable,” he said.

According to Jeffrey Slotnick, an enterprise security risk consultant, the risk assessment process is similar for any venue and it must account for manmade, natural, and technological dangers. Once threats are identified, steps are taken to mitigate them.

“If you have a high-threat environment, then you want layers of security,” he said.

Morman described concentric circles of protection around a venue as an ideal scenario.

“Think of it as an outer perimeter, middle perimeter, and an inner perimeter,” he said, “Each perimeter has different layers of security within it, such as CCTV cameras, security and/or police officers, and even counter surveillance teams.”

An outer perimeter would be the area around the arena that is easier to access. The middle perimeter would start at a door or gate that one needs credentials to enter. Then the inner perimeter is the stage, field, and dressing rooms.

The security perimeters can be extended to keep unscreened people away from the arena, but that alone does not eliminate the problem because there is eventually a point where the screening ends.

“You’ve still got a location where you’re going to have a gaggling of people waiting to pick up loved ones,” Burton said.

While it is inevitable that there will be people unprotected outside the perimeter, there is often more that can be done to guard those within it.

“What we need to get better at is pretty much a human factor element that can be done virtually overnight,” Roman said.

Better screening procedures, stricter supervision of private security staff, and more effective training for screeners are all important steps that can be taken. It is also necessary to stay on top of technological advances and new methods used by terrorists.

“Changing security tactics, locations, technology always keeps the attackers off balance and re-planning,” Roman said.

Just ensuring that screening is occurring everywhere would be a step forward.

“In a perfect world, you would have bag check and security screening of people going into the arena,” Burton said.

However, he added that people leaving a concert and those waiting outside the venue would still be unscreened. In Manchester, that meant the bomber was able to attack in a crowded, confined space where he could easily lurk without scrutiny until the right moment.

“It provides perfect cover for action,” Burton said.

One point experts emphasized is that the responsibility for keeping concertgoers safe does not rest solely on the venue itself. People attending these events need to stay alert as well.

“They have a responsibility to be observant, they have a responsibility to identify what is suspicious,” Slotnick said. Too many people are afraid to say something if they see something, though.

He also suggested making an emergency plan with your group, knowing where the exits are, and being prepared to communicate with each other if cellular networks do not work.

“There’s all kinds of precursor things that people can do to take responsibility for themselves,” he said.

People tend to let their guard down when they are having fun, and they can easily miss warning signs.

“You’re watching the entertaining event, not watching your surroundings,” Roman said.

As always, though, security experts warn that it is impossible to protect the egress points of every soft target in the U.S. and to prevent every attempt to perpetrate an attack like the Manchester bombing.

“I know people like solutions to problems,” Burton said, “but this is not an easy one to fix.”

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