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Manchester terrorist attack demonstrates threat evolution

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The recent tragic bombing in Manchester, England, showed how terrorist threats continue to exist and evolve as experts work to improve methods of prediction, mitigation and prevention.

The Manchester attack occurred May 22 as an Ariana Grande concert was emptying from Manchester Arena, with 22 people killed and more than 100 injured when a suicide bomber detonated just outside the arena.

The attack represented a shift in tactics, according to some experts.

“The type of attack has changed,” said Wendy Peters, executive vice president, financial solutions — terrorism and political violence, for Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. in New York. The attackers’ focus seems to have shifted from property damage to a greater human toll, she said. “Now we’re looking at an increased number of casualties and decreased damage to property.”

Europe has recently seen a string of so-called “inspired attacks” in which a person acts on his or her own without direct contact with some central authority. These types of attacks include the March 2017 incident in Westminster in London near the seat of the British Parliament in which four people were killed and more than 50 injured, and the July 2016 Nice, France, Bastille day truck attack in which 86 were killed and more than 400 injured.

“What we’re seeing is more and more inspired attacks, not necessarily directed, without a lot of communication between a central command and the attacker,” Bill Udell, Los Angeles-based senior partner for Control Risks’ business protection and resilience services across the Americas. “The local nature and lack of communication make it harder for local law enforcement to interdict.”

Mitigation efforts that may seem obvious, including extending the security perimeter, may not be entirely effective because it would simply relocate any choke points, which are areas where passage narrows, such as the entrance to a venue, causing movement to slow and people to accumulate. Choke points create a maximum potential for human toll for terrorists.

“The obvious step which you would think of from a physical security standpoint is to extend the perimeter, which doesn’t solve the overall problem because you will still bottleneck people in a different location,” said Matthew Bradley, Philadelphia-based regional security director, Americas, for International SOS and Control Risks. Mr. Bradley runs the travel security services business line in the Americas that is a joint venture between the two companies. “Everybody has to stand in line at some point, regardless of where you put that,” Mr. Udell said.

One possible method to help in the detection and mitigation of terrorist attacks would be to institute a more comprehensive system allowing the reporting of warning signs of possible attacks.

“We need to find a better methodology for anonymous reporting,” said Harry Rhulen, Denver-based president, KeyStone Solutions Inc. and co-founder and former CEO of crisis management firm Firestorm, which was acquired by Keystone in January. He believes encouraging and enabling such reporting could help mitigate the terrorist threat.

“Unfortunately, after these events, you always have people who come forward,” Mr. Rhulen said. “There’s always some people who have some knowledge they didn’t bring forth that could have made a difference.”

Mr. Udell also supports programs to encourage and incentivize bystanders to report. “What frequently happens is eyewitnesses express information after the fact. There is no mechanism to report. During that mobilization phase, there may be people who saw signs of the attack, but did not report,” Mr. Udell said, something the Federal Bureau of Investigation calls “The Bystander Effect.”

Technology is becoming a more powerful tool in the battle to mitigate terrorist threats.

“Analytics are growing in importance as a tool to help identify and quantify threats,” including potential attack sites and damages, Ms. Peters said. “With the development of more robust analytics, we are seeing a real focus on helping clients predict the potential nature of an event and potential severity.”

Robots are also being deployed to do security reconnaissance in stadiums and other public venues, “which is something we haven’t seen before,” she said, adding that drones are also being used for security.

Combining advancing technology with an increased human presence is another way to enhance threat mitigation and prevention.

“Technologies may be employed to observe farther out and extend our view, but you will still need human interdiction to prevent such attacks,” Mr. Bradley said.

Mr. Udell also said that such a “behavioral surveillance in the crowd” by both uniformed and plainclothes officials would strengthen threat mitigation.

“You start looking at the problem further out using technology, then use people on the ground to interdict,” Mr. Bradley said. “Technology can detect from farther away and start to funnel your suspects and then the human element can make that judgement call at the end.”