Terrorism in the Modern World: the Associated Risks of Large-Scale Events

August 8th, 2016

by Christie Chung, CHHS Research Assistant

Large-scale events pose unique safety and security concerns for law enforcement officials. In addition to anticipating common disruptions such as public drunkenness, fighting, and petty theft, police officers must grapple with the fact that special events provide an attractive target for terrorist attacks. The nature of such events—large, excitable crowds in confined spaces—makes planning for contingencies exceedingly difficult.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s Bastille Day attack on the Promenade des Anglais demonstrates the tremendous potential for tragedy posed by such events and the importance of preliminary planning. Running a distance of approximately four and a half miles, the Promenade des Anglais is a popular promenade in Nice, France that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. As a crowd of 30,000 gathered along the walkway for Bastille Day festivities, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ploughed through throngs of pedestrians, targeting individuals with both his 19-ton truck and an automatic handgun.

In the days following the attack, much has been said about how Lahouaiej-Bouhlel got through security. Chiefly, commentators question the government’s use of resources and personnel on the night of the attack. According to the Interior Ministry, 120 police officers were on-duty to patrol the promenade. For a crowd of 30,000, that is approximately 1 officer per 250 people. (As a point of comparison, for the estimated 700,000 that attended July 4th festivities on the National Mall this year, the officer to pedestrian ratio stood roughly at 1 officer per 184 people.)

In an open letter, Christian Estrosi, president of the greater Nice region, castigates France’s current leadership as “incapable.” Estrosi states that he requested reinforcements prior to that day’s festivities, but was told that their current numbers were sufficient.

Also drawing criticism is the manner in which authorities secured the perimeter. In preparation for the event, officers cordoned off sections of the city with plastic ribbons and metal barriers. However, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel easily circumvented obstacles and gained entry onto the promenade by swerving to mount a sidewalk. Once on the promenade, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove through the crowd for more than a mile before officers fatally wounded him.

Principally at issue is the matter of the truck’s vicinity to the event in the first place. National trucking restrictions would warrant at least a cursory traffic stop.  Traffic restrictions on heavy goods vehicles (HGV), defined as vehicles with a gross weight exceeding 7.5 tons, prohibit lorries from operating on French roadways from 10pm Saturday until 10pm Sunday. The restriction extends to cover national holidays such as Bastille Day, starting from 10:00pm the night prior. At least one resident, Mario Auferio, recalls feeling upset at the truck’s presence in his neighborhood that night as he watched it lumber down the wrong direction on a one-way street.

The quandary of how to secure and manage large events is an issue that all nations must face. Temporary traffic modifications and commercial vehicle restrictions are a common security measure adopted by cities. Baltimore City routinely restricts commercial vehicle access to downtown areas ahead of the city’s annual New Year’s Eve Spectacular held at the Inner Harbor. The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DoJ) Planning and Managing Security for Major Special Events: Guidelines for Law Enforcement provides further recommendations for pre-and post-event management. Specifically, on the topic of transportation and vehicle access, the DoJ prescribes a multi-agency approach to perimeter control and screening. For many large events, FBI Field Intelligence Groups (FIG) remain available to help coordinate communication and intelligence efforts on a local, state, and federal level. The guidelines place emphasis on finalization of a security operational plan well in advance to the date of the event. Ideally, the DoJ suggests allotting 12 to 18 months for event planning—major federal events require anywhere from 2 to 3 years of planning. Plans are to include detailed protocols for field supervision, crisis management, and crowd control.

At the end of the day, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was not known to harbor radical Islamist ideologies. His anonymity to internal intelligence services made predicting the attack next to impossible. Once the 19-ton lorry was on the promenade, there was little authorities could do to hinder its progress.  Fastidious pre-event planning will not deter a determined terrorist; however, it may go a long way towards thwarting attempts when possible, and minimizing casualties if the worst comes to pass.

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