Soft Targets - What Security Professionals Can Learn From the Manchester Attack

National Security

​​A man writes a message at a vigil in Liverpool, England for victims of the Manchester attack     ​                                                                                                                         ​ Flickr/​James O'Hanlon​​​​

Soft Targets: What Security Professionals Can Learn From the Manchester Attack
Michael J. Fagel

Michael J. Fagel is a crisis management expert with more than 30 years of experience in emergency planning and response. He has written several books and is co-author of Soft Targets and Crisis Management: What Emergency Planners and Security Professionals Need to Know. He is a member of the ASIS School Safety and Security Council.

Security Management Associate Editor Holly Gilbert Stowell spoke to Fagel about the recent terror attack in Manchester, England, and what security professionals can do to prevent soft target attacks. Their conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Stowell: From what we've seen over the last few months, attacks on soft targets—places of worship, study, and leisure—seem increasingly commonplace. What type of target is the Manchester Arena—a typical soft target, or some sort of hybrid with unique features?

Fagel: It is a typical soft target, given the fact that there are more and more security measures in place as people get closer to the venue. It's a pretty common occurrence in stadiums, to have nonsecure areas where people are approaching the building. Just think of an airport, think of a baggage claim, think of queuing up before you get in the airport. Everybody's milling about in these commons spaces before they go through security.

Stowell: The Manchester attacker detonated a suicide bomb on the perimeter of the event as people were filing out of the concert. Do you think the perimeter is actually a bigger concern for a soft target than inside the venue itself?

Fagel:I think they're equally as critical. The perimeter is of equal significance and of equal danger as inside, because nobody knows who's walking about the perimeter and the nonsecure area. A backpack looks innocuous, a lunchbox, a briefcase, a shopping bag—any one of those things would be very common in a place of commerce and wouldn't look out of the ordinary. So anybody could be wandering with that object, and you would never know that they were engaging in malicious activity.

Stowell: Are U.S. arenas, and other facilities similar to the Manchester Arena in the United States, now vulnerable to attack? If so, in what ways?

Fagel: I don't want to be an alarmist, I want to be a realist. Nothing is invulnerable to this type of attack. I've worked in the Middle East and all over the world. Our society right now is not prepared for this type of event. I've been training police officers, firefighters, and rescue personnel for the last 20 years, and we are continually striving to be better than we are, but the bad guys learn from each incident. Every time something occurs, they will get better, and if you look at the terrorist propaganda, there are explicit instructions on how to carry out these sort of events. These elements are cookbooks for the bad guys.

Terrorists take advantage of our openness, of our fairness, and our way of life, which they don't like for whatever reason. They use that against us. Do we want to change that? No. We're built on freedoms, but we have to be cautious that the bad guys are learning minute by minute—and nothing is off limits now.

Stowell: Speaking of limits, this was an attack on a venue containing children and teenagers. Do we have a moral boundary in our minds that causes us to treat security differently for events concerning younger people?

Fagel: Have the bad guys crossed a line? The answer is yes. Have they done something that is heinous? Yes. I worked the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and carried out rescue and recovery during the attacks. I thought that was the worst thing I had ever seen, and having been a medic, firefighter, and police officer for many years, and seeing infants killed—I thought that crossed a line.

But bad guys now targeting the concert with a younger crowd, people as young as eight years old, to me that crosses every moral boundary. After September 11, people were really vigilant about security for the first few months, but then they started to get more lax. You can never let your guard down. As soon as you start to relax and think the threat is over with, the bad guys are watching our behaviors and will seize ​on that opportunity. They're watching our security postures. They're watching how we react to things.

Stowell: What lessons can security professionals take away from this attack to help increase security at soft target venues?

Fagel: Think of soft targets like a bullseye with rings around it. Picture an airport where security needs to start prior to the secure area. If the airport is the bullseye, security needs to start in the parking lot, baggage delivery, at ticket counters. It needs to start way before you approach the secure zone, so that security is the culture of the entire area.

You have layers of defense, layers that protect you as you move closer and closer to the soft target in the middle. Let's say in an office building there's a security server for the Internet. If that's the bullseye—I have to prevent people from ever getting there. And an office​ worker is the softest target with Internet access and passwords. It's the concept and culture of hardening people, and hardening your venues so that you're more aware, and preventing something before it even gets close to your bullseye.

There must be a personal awareness. It's not somebody else's job, it's our responsibility as alert citizens to be cognizant of our surroundings, see something say something. If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't right.

Finally, the solution is having an attitude and an awareness for things that may be out of place. I'm not talking about profiling people, I'm talking about profiling behaviors and actions. The Virginia Tech shooter, [Seung-Hui​] Cho, was at the gun range, shooting holes in paper targets face down. That's a behavior. Omar Mateen wanted to buy body armor in Florida before carrying out the Pulse Nightclub massacre. Is the person acquiring weaponry? Are they buying precursory devices and material? Are they buying powder for explosives? Are they buying ammunition? Are they taking shotgun shells apart? Are they asking weird questions at the gun range, the gun shop, or the fireworks store?

Use commonly available tools and information to develop your intelligence quotient and your ability to see what may be happening. It's all about awareness. ​