Olympics, playoff hockey celebrations, sporting events, carnivals, parades, outdoor concerts, nightclubs, theaters, auditoriums: all festive events or locations that attract mass crowds of people. While serving to bring people together for entertainment and celebration, given the current threat environment another lens needs to be applied when considering such events and venues. What are their vulnerabilities? Could they be potential targets? What other risks are involved? How will personal safety be impacted?
These are questions that may have no definitive answers; yet, they highlight the need to consider various common elements, all of which warrant examination and mindful consideration in terms of planning and security, for both organizers and attendees.
Why Crowded Events Become Targets
While recognizing that many of these events are distinct in their own ways, they also share various attributes, most notably the gathering of a large amount of people into a space for a common purpose. They inherently draw excessively large numbers of people and pose unique security concerns based on the size of the crowd alone. Aside from such issues as crowd density and ensuring adequate ingress and egress routes, large crowds also tend to draw increased media attention, which provides a more attractive platform for those attempting to bring attention to a particular cause. This may include protesters, disgruntled employees, and those with extremist views, to name but a few.
Furthermore, various public events and venues can be considered “soft targets” in that they typically have few restrictions regarding who can attend and little in the way of physical security measures and design elements to prevent a critical incident from occurring. They are vulnerable and difficult to fully protect. Moreover, when VIPs and other high profile attendees are in attendance, they may bring with them their own set of risks. Government officials, politicians, professional athletes, celebrities, corporate CEOs, may all require separate consideration with regards to the effect their attendance has on the security of the event itself.
Various Degrees of Risk to Crowded Events
Natural, accidental, and/or intentional incidents can all pose various degrees of risk. These range from natural/weather-related threats (such as storms), to lone assailants, IEDs, vehicles used as weapons, protesters, and “ordinary” criminal behavior.
For example, severe weather poses a particular risk to large events held in outdoor settings. This may include severe storms (thunderstorms, lightning), heat waves, tornadoes, or sudden wind storms. Weather-related threats to mass gatherings are fluid and often unpredictable. In situations with higher crowd densities, weather-related risks may also pose an issue with regards to shelter and evacuations.
Lone Assailant Attacks
Lone assailants, regardless of their motivation, have become an increasingly prominent threat in the minds of many. Historically, lone actor attacks have involved a myriad of perpetrators, motivated not only by Islamic extremism, but also by right-wing extremism, anti-abortionist viewpoints, radical environmentalism, disgruntled employees, and domestic violence.
The public spectacle achieved by threatening and/or attacking a large crowd of people remains an attractive possibility to those who are motivated. Due to the very nature of the “lone wolf” assailant, they are difficult to predict and extremely challenging to prevent. These attacks are typically low-tech and low-capability, which makes them hard to detect.
Orlando Nightclub Shooting 2016
On June 12th 2016 a lone gunman, who claimed allegiance to ISIL, killed 49 people at an Orlando, FL nightclub, and wounded over 50 others. The shooting took place at Pulse, a prominent gay bar in Orlando, and was notably carried out during both the holy month of Ramadan, as well as Pride month, a period of celebration and commemoration for the LGBTQ community and its supporters. Although the motives behind the attack are not completely clear at this time, it is the deadliest mass shooting in US history, and potentially the largest terrorist attack on US soil since September 11th.
In a similar vein, shortly following the mass shooting in Orlando, FL police arrested a man in Southern California who was on his way to the gay pride parade in West Hollywood, an event that typically draws hundreds of thousands of people. The man was in possession of three assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, ammunition, and chemicals used in the making of explosives. It is unknown whether he intended to do harm to those at the parade. Regardless of motivation, these incidents both serve as stark reminders that the lone actor is a very real threat and that large public gatherings are often vulnerable and unprotected.
Risk Associated with Travelling to Major Events like Rio de Janeiro Olympics
One must also keep in mind, however, that when travelling abroad to attend large high profile events such as the Olympics, one is far more likely to fall victim to more “ordinary” crimes than to a terrorist attack or weather catastrophe. For instance, amidst a recession and rising unemployment, the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, and fights to control the Zika virus outbreak, Brazil prepares for the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
In addition to protecting venues and events against high-profile attacks, a significant security concern also lies with the large number of robberies targeting tourists along the beach, high levels of violence, and the flow of illegal drugs. Clear footage of violent muggings targeting tourists in broad daylight has prompted police to ensure more reinforcements as the Olympics near and a global spotlight is shone on Rio itself. Curbing violence and stemming the flow of drugs is a massive long-term undertaking in any jurisdiction, let alone in one where these elements are firmly entrenched in daily life and shootouts with the police are not uncommon in drug-ridden favelas. There are many favelas that have undergone “pacification” through military intervention to increase security prior to the Olympics. However there are still a large portion of these urban slums that remain controlled by gangs and drug lords, and are considered to be dangerously off-limits zones to outsiders.
Certainly, none of this is to suggest limiting attendance at large public events. Rather, when organizing or attending these types of events and taking all of this into consideration, imagine the significant implications on safety and security if heightened awareness of surroundings, identified threats, and potentially hazardous situations was realized beforehand. Gathering and analyzing relevant intelligence surrounding large public high-profile events can create a fuller picture and serve to reduce risks to both individuals and businesses. With a better understanding of what risks are out there, the unknown becomes known, and strategies and solutions can be put in place to make for a safer, more fulfilling, experience.