……we have grown used to looking out for unattended packages which almost always turn out to be just that but now we need to be on the lookout for assault teams of marauding gunmen who do not take prisoners.
Amongst the mayhem in Paris on Friday 13th of November the armed assault on the Bataclan Theatre and the murder of 89 occupants brings home the reality of just how vulnerable public events are to attacks of this nature. In the UK, shielded by our borders, we have been more fortunate but the frequency and ferocity of these attacks means that we need to examine the nature of this threat to our events both at home and overseas.
The post-cold war conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, Middle East, Afghanistan and to a certain extent sub Saharan Africa created a supply of redundant arms, explosives and skilled insurgent fighters. Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other jihadist groups gave some of those fighters a new focus and put their fighting skills, weapons and explosives to use. ISIL’s subsequent rapid taking of territory in Iraq and Syria have also gained them unparalleled resources in terms of money and military hardware. The effect in a borderless Europe was plain to see in the attacks in Paris. This of course is a gross over simplification to a highly complex global problem and the cause of and the long term solution to this problem is for historians and politicians respectively. The global events and exhibitions business meanwhile needs to deal with the current reality.
Threat is a combination of intent to harm and capability to do so. Terrorist outrages are not new and in previous decades we have had the Red Brigade, Baader-Meinhof, the IRA and others who bombed public places and fought gun battles on our city streets. They were however constrained by relatively narrow political aims and limits to their appetite for killing and destruction. Even the IRA never bombed a tube train, although they were certainly capable of doing so, and focused on their efforts in fighting the security forces that ultimately defeated them. The jihadists’ intent in pursuance of establishing a caliphate fuels an unrestrained appetite for slaughter and destruction aimed at soft targets, mostly public gatherings which is why the events industry is now so vulnerable. Even if the aligned powers take a ground force war to them, it will take some time to defeat them so it is reasonable to assume that these attacks will continue.
The capability of ISIL in particular cannot be doubted. Last autumn they destroyed a Russian passenger jet, bombed a street in Beirut, and carried out six simultaneous assaults on targets in Paris amounting to three attacks of mass murder in three different countries inside a fortnight. No terrorist group in modern history, including Al-Qaeda, have demonstrated such operational breadth and direct reach in terms of destructive capability or the ability to inspire other terrorist groups to commit similar atrocities such as the recent attacks in Jakarta. In summary we face a terrorist threat in terms of intent and capability which is more destructive and far reaching than ever before.
We cannot know for sure the extent to which the security services are containing the threat. In the UK they have certainly defeated many planned attacks assisted by the UK’s far tighter controls on weapons and explosives and the fact that we control our borders. The capability of insurgent groups is thus mitigated and so far in the last 10 years the threat has been contained, in relative terms at least, to the murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich in 2013.
Most European countries have well trained counter insurgency police and troops that can respond quickly to an attack and contain it. Notwithstanding, since the attackers do not usually fear death or capture they are prepared to mount bold assaults in public places. The Bataclan Theatre is a case in point. Even against the famously aggressive and well-trained French anti- terrorist police three ISIL gunmen armed with assault rifles held them off for two hours and forty minutes whilst inside the building, firing into the tightly-packed audience of 1,500. It begs the question as to how effectively any event venue or organiser can plan or prepare for such an eventuality.
In sub Saharan Africa the threat from groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shaabab in Kenya is typified by the latter’s activities killing 67 in Nairobi’s upmarket Westgate shopping mall which Kenyan security forces took four days to control. In April four members held hostage over 500 students for ten hours at Garissa University. It took seven hours for a response to be deployed, long after the media had already arrived, and another three hours to mount a rescue by which time 148 students had been killed. The growing threat in African states is exacerbated by the apparent weakness of their anti-terrorist security forces and their failures in intelligence and response. It is not certain that a group like Al Shaabab would be capable of attacking an international airport but it is reasonable to assume that they could successfully attack a more lightly defended convention centre or an executive hotel in the style of the attack on the Taj Hotel in Mumbai in 2008 and now in Mali and Jakarta. Event managers spend a great deal of their time in these places. In the UK event organisers are used to dealing with the terrorist threat by liaising with the security services and professional venue security managers but they would not get that access in many other countries. Event companies should ask themselves whether they even fully understand the true nature of the threat in some of the countries in which they operate.
Whilst it is still statistically very unlikely that any given event will be a direct target, there is no avoiding the fact that in Paris ISIL chose to attack two events, a football match and a concert in a capital city. Any event, therefore, including trade events like exhibitions and conferences, which tend to be held in major cities, can be considered a potential target. It is far more likely that an event will be caught up in an attack sequence just because it is in tenancy at a venue in the same city or country during an attack. Beyond the threat to life, the long term consequences for a venue or an event organiser affected directly or indirectly by an attack such as the one on the Bataclan Theatre could be far greater than those traditionally conceived as a ‘major incident’.
At board level and for key investors the essential question is whether the analysis of the threat changes the viability of any event in terms of whether the commercial benefits are worth the risk. Other key stakeholders such as key exhibitors and insurers could also influence this analysis. More likely the problem will be passed down to an operational level to review risk assessment, planning processes and security arrangements.
Traditionally our worst case scenario planning envisages a serious fire or an explosive device causing multiple loss of life. In either case the drill is to use the fire exits to get away from the hazard with the assumption that the emergency services would be quickly on the scene. We now face the problem that the drill of making one’s way quickly and calmly to the nearest fire exit may be the very opposite of the best course of action in the face of, for example, marauding gunmen with assault rifles. The question is how we nuance our emergency drills to take account of the change in threat without over complicating them.
We mostly consider these threats to arise when the event team is established in the venue but what is the response if, as seems more likely, employees are caught up in an attack on their hotel or multiple attacks close by in the city in which they happen to be staying?
In conclusion, in simple terms we have grown used to looking out for unattended packages which almost always turn out to be just that but now we need to be on the lookout for assault teams of marauding gunmen who do not take prisoners or hostages. It is however important not to lose our sense of perspective or indeed become fixated with the events in Paris since ours is a global business exposed to a range of threats and other risks. Event companies need to look at their operational footprint and profile and assess their exposure to risk generally. Most companies already have robust plans and planning processes in place and train staff to deal with a crisis. These arrangements need to be reviewed to ensure they remain fit for purpose. Perhaps the key issue here is that the scale and the nature of the threat has fundamentally changed. Even in the worst case scenarios for which we train, the emergency and security services are quickly on hand to take control and yet we have seen that, depending on where you are in the world, that can take hours or even days. The unpalatable conclusion is that following the events in Paris our worst case scenarios for planning and training just got worse by some measure.
©X-Venture Ltd 2015