How to Prevent the Terrorism Threat from Disrupting Concerts and Sports Events?

The suicide bombing that struck a music concert in Manchester, England last night claimed the lives of 22 people and left 59 injured. In a special column, Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel discusses the challenges of holding cultural and sporting events under the shadow of terror threats

Photo: AP

One of the objectives of terrorism is to spread fear (terror) and anxiety among the general public to the point of disrupting everyday life. Major sports events, along with mass-audience cultural events (music concerts, festivals and so forth) have always been, and will always remain prime targets for terrorists owing to the extensive media coverage they receive.

Characteristically, the time and place of such an event are known and publicized well in advance. Massive crowds flock to these events, the public transport systems serving the venue where the event takes place are crowded and overloaded, and the process where the audience enters and leaves the venue leads to massive bottlenecks. All of these characteristics make mass-audience events a serious weakness and a preferred target for terrorist attacks. The primary question the authorities face when specific warnings have been received of imminent terrorist attacks is whether or not the event should be allowed to take place, whether it should be postponed, canceled or relocated to a different venue.

The Israeli sports authorities were compelled to relocate international tournaments originally intended to be held in Israel to the neighboring island of Cyprus against the background of complex security situations. Similarly, states/teams scheduled to compete against Israeli teams took advantage of the same circumstances by demanding that tournaments be relocated from Israel to other, safer locations.

Recently, we encountered three situations where the tension between holding the match as planned and the option of postponing/canceling it evolved into a practical challenge. These situations involved the Israeli national football team in a match against Albania on November 8, 2015, the Maccabi Nahariya basketball team in a rematch in the context of the Euro Cup and a match in Turkey involving the Israeli football team Hapoel Be'er-Sheva. These are but a few examples from recent times where the dilemma was reported to the public, as there were many other examples involving different sports.

It should be noted that the ISA (Israel Security Agency – SHABAK) is the government organ responsible for authorizing or refusing such sports events. The ISA is required, along with the National Counterterrorism Bureau, to consolidate and submit a specific recommendation to the minister in charge. Naturally, there is always tension between the option of surrendering to terrorism by canceling the event and the option of taking the risk despite the concrete warnings.

The terrorist organizations will be delighted to succeed in attacking international sports events generally and sports events involving Israeli participants in particular. As far as they are concerned, having the event canceled, postponed or relocated is a victory of sorts, achieved through a relatively minor effort. All they have to do is publish a video or some other electronic message that specifically threatens the event, and the organizers will start sweating when they ponder the dilemma of whether to allow the event to go ahead as planned or cancel it. If we accept this scenario, then terrorism will be able to disrupt our life almost effortlessly, in a manner where we will no longer be able to hold any events. A fabricated warning of a bomb planted at the venue where the event is about to take place will be sufficient to cause panic and lead to a postponement or even to cancellation.

So – what should be the appropriate policy for such circumstances? What can the organizers do to avoid a situation where the plans, and life itself, are unreasonably disrupted?

I believe that the strength and resilience of a society that values life and its own survival, the risks notwithstanding, are measured – among other things – by its ability to maintain a planned routine of events. Does a basketball game or a football match justify taking risks involving human lives? Is it justified to take a risk when facing a tangible threat only to uphold the slogan "we will not allow terrorism to win and disrupt our life"? I believe that the organizers on behalf of the country hosting the match, game or performance should prepare in such a manner as to allow the event to take place almost under any circumstances. The proper way to accomplish this goal is to employ a system of advance preparation that analyzes the threats and develops a reasonable solution for every possible threat. There are no full-proof, 100% solutions, but a 100% effort is required during the planning stage, as well as during the implementation stage so that the risk of allowing terrorism to prevail is minimized. Canceling an event should be the very last resort, invoked only after it has become abundantly clear that despite the planning process, certain scenarios had not been provided with adequate solutions, and only then should the event be canceled. In any other scenario, other alternatives should be opted for, like enhancing security, expanding the security loops and even relocating the event to a different venue. The fight against terrorism is a long-distance run, and as such, it demands that we take calculated risks.

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Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel is the former head of Israel's Counter-Terrorism Bureau.

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