Collaborating to Prevent Terrorist Attacks Against Soft Targets

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A local Emergency Service Unit conducts a drill on how to respond to attacks on soft targets.
A local Emergency Service Unit conducts a drill on how to respond to attacks on soft targets.

Collaborating to Prevent Terrorist Attacks Against Soft Targets

As the State Department’s Worldwide Caution warns, terrorists aim to assault “soft” targets, including high-profile public events, hotels, nightclubs, restaurants, sporting events, places of worship, shopping malls, markets, and public transportation systems.  Private industry and government officials have sought to protect these targets through different measures tailored to their communities. 

Unlike symbolic or government locations that are known targets, it is a challenge to protect locations designed to be open and inviting for everyday activities, such as dining, shopping, and lodging.  These soft targets are often populated by passing foot traffic or customers, locals, and tourists alike. Together, governments and businesses share the responsibility to strike a balance of security and accessibility at these locations.

Effective preparedness for soft target attacks depends on multilateral collaboration as well as national-level communication and coordination across multiple departments, disciplines, and functions, including intelligence and risk analysis, law enforcement, emergency management, and military.  Preparedness also requires communication and cooperation with private industry and civil society.  In the United States,  the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Hometown Security program demonstrates such cooperation by encouraging public and private partners to connect, plan, train, and report suspicious activity through its “If you See Something, Say Something” campaign.

Overseas, the State Department is working with other countries and organizations to share experiences, ideas, and practices that can assist partner nations to better protect public places.  Under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), the United States and Turkey are co-leading the “Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context Initiative,” which aims to raise awareness, identify needs, and leverage expertise and experiences to better protect potential soft targets.  The initiative is developing a set of internationally-recognized non-binding good practices that can serve as the basis for international engagement, assistance, and training to enhance the security and resilience of sites that are potential soft targets. 

Maria del Valle, Political Affairs Officer, United Nations; Karen Zareski, Director, Office of Homeland Security, Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State; and Kristi Riccardi, ‎Regional Director, Office of Infrastructure Protection, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, were among the United Nations and United States attendees at the soft target protection workshop in Singapore.

In support of this initiative, Turkey and the United States co-chaired a workshop in Singapore on March 30-31 where national and municipal governments, international organizations, and private sector partners gathered to discuss how to approach the challenge of terrorist attacks against soft targets.  In her opening remarks, the American Embassy Singapore’s Chargé d’affaires Stephanie Syyptak-Rannath, encouraged the assembled experts to share best practices and lessons learned because we need “collaborative and innovative approaches.” During the course of the workshop, experts ranging from national chiefs of police to safety and security directors of multinational hospitality companies shared lessons from case studies of past attacks on soft targets in Mumbai and Bali.  Participants also shared their latest methods for communicating with and preparing the public and industry for such attacks. 

Over the next few months, the “Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context Initiative” will continue to address the challenge of balancing security priorities with the necessary openness of potential soft targets.  Future workshops will be held in West Africa and Europe.  As we work with counterterrorism experts and researchers to address  the dynamic, threat of terrorism facing us globally, we continue to highlight the importance of continuous risk assessment and support efforts that work to make our communities safer.

About the Author: Matthew Keller serves as a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the Department of State.

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