Protecting Public Spaces and Soft Targets

7 minutes read time
A U.S. instructor in a bomb suit inspects a suspected bomb, during a training drill on how to respond to a bomb threat and how to detonate the device at the Jordan International Police Training Center in Amman.
A U.S. instructor in a bomb suit inspects a suspected bomb, during a training drill on how to respond to a bomb threat at the Jordan International Police Training Center in Amman.

Protecting Public Spaces and Soft Targets

What are Soft Targets?

Terrorists target innocent civilians going about their daily lives. Public spaces crowded with locals and tourists alike, from Barcelona to Bamako, Ouagadougou to Paris, and New York to Istanbul, have experienced attacks. Some attackers get direction from foreign terrorist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qa’ida. Others act alone. But all use the same tactics widely available through terrorist propaganda, magazines, and video. Some terrorists plan and practice, while others are opportunistic. Attacks on public spaces — locations where civilians work, dine, shop, and vacation — are tragic for the innocent lives lost as well as the violent assault on a country’s daily way of life.  This is the strategy of terrorism, and it is vital that we better protect the places where the public freely gathers.  

Protecting public places is complex. Restaurants, stadiums, and entertainment venues are designed to be open and accessible, leaving them vulnerable. These places are often referred to as “soft targets.” The types of places attacked vary, as do the types of attacks, which generally involve some combination of suicide bombers, gunmen, hostages, or low-tech tactics that turn knives or vehicles into murderous weapons. 

Concerns about protecting public places are not new, but the call by ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and other terrorist groups to attack soft targets heightens the risks to new levels. The international community can confront this global threat by sharing national strategies and solutions at the local, national, and multilateral level. Together we can work creatively and effectively to find ways to preserve the openness and accessibility that make these places so enjoyable to everyone.

The State Department Takes Action: The Soft Target Protection Initiative

To address these concerns, the State Department’s Counterterrorism (CT) Bureau teamed up with the Government of Turkey in September 2016 to launch the Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context Initiative under the auspices of the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF). The initiative had two important goals: to bring together experts from around the world to increase awareness of, and preparedness for, attacks against soft targets, and to develop the first set of international “good practices” available to both government and industry partners to protect public spaces against this evolving terrorist threat. 

Over the course of a year, 150 government and industry practitioners representing over 60 countries participated in regional GCTF workshops in Turkey, Singapore, Senegal, and at the EU in Brussels to examine case studies and share insights, experiences, and good practices in the areas of law enforcement, intelligence analysis, emergency response, security, counterterrorism, communications, and crisis management. Together, they leveraged their distinct yet complementary disciplines to better understand options for protecting soft targets throughout the world. 

One new and challenging concept that emerged for many workshop participants was that government and industry partnerships are essential for protecting public places against terrorist attacks. While government has specialized knowledge about terrorist organizations, private industry owns and operates most of the places targeted by terrorists. The GCTF initiative promoted the need to develop focused and practical public-private partnerships before, during, and after a soft target attack. Hospitality industry leader Paul Moxness, former Vice President, Corporate Safety and Security, Radisson Hotels and outgoing Chair, of the Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council Hotel Security Working Group, who participated in the workshops, provided valuable lessons learned on the importance of training employees to help detect and prevent security incidents, and of trusted, timely, and routine two-way information sharing between government and industry, in an ever-changing security environment.

Results: The Antalya Memorandum 

After the GCTF workshops, the participants worked together to draft the first set of non-binding, internationally-recognized good practices for protecting soft targets. The final product, the “Antalya Memorandum on Good Practices on the Protection of Soft Targets in a Counterterrorism Context”, was publicly released on September 2017. Governments and private industry can use the report to develop policies, good practices, guidelines, and programs to protect citizens and potential soft targets from terrorist attacks. 

The international community is building momentum behind this issue. In spring 2018, both the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum held separate workshops to promote use of the good practices in national counterterrorism and related strategies. The APEC workshop produced recommendations for more practical cooperation among the counterterrorism, emergency preparedness and tourism security communities as well as among organizations, such as APEC, the United Nations, and Organization of American States (OAS).

Canada and the United Kingdom are sharing the good practices in international tourism security trainings with law enforcement, interior ministries, and the tourism sector. In 2017, Australia published its Strategy for Protecting Crowded Places from Terrorism, noting that international engagement must continue to inform and guide Australia’s approach to protecting crowded places from terrorism. That same year, the EU began implementing its action plan to improve the protection of public spaces and has set up various fora for enhancing cooperation, and exchanging information between public and private stakeholders. 

The Antalya Memorandum also serves as a resource for the U.S. Government. The State Department’s CT Bureau has incorporated the good practices into our foreign assistance capacity building training programs, which are focused specifically on helping law enforcement engage with industry to better protect public spaces and critical infrastructure. Law enforcement in Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, Panama, Mexico, and Senegal have already received the updated courses. 

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is also using the good practices as it expands on its existing capabilities to secure soft targets domestically. Given the evolving threat environment and the dynamic threats posed by terrorists however, DHS is placing greater emphasis on securing soft targets and crowded places. In March 2018, DHS released a plan for maximizing its authorities, capabilities, and resources to more effectively enhance security, and a guide with resources for the public. DHS’ efforts include enhanced security operations, intelligence and information sharing, capacity building, and research and development.

Good Practices at The United Nations

While attacks on public spaces are on the rise worldwide, terrorists also continue to target critical infrastructure. These are the assets, systems, and networks that power our homes, clean our water, transport us to work, and connect us with our friends and family, and they are also vulnerable. To counter this threat, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2341 in February 2017, reiterating the need to strengthen the security and protection of critical infrastructure and particularly vulnerable targets, such as public spaces. The bottom line is that efforts to protect critical infrastructure and soft targets should be aligned and mutually reinforcing. To raise awareness of the resolution, the UN published a compendium of good practices to protect critical infrastructure against terrorist attacks, and expects to follow up with a series of regional workshops.

The CT Bureau is pleased that the GCTF initiative has generated a new and ever-expanding international network to support our collective efforts to better protect soft targets and public spaces. 

Although terrorists continue to target civilians and soft targets, expert tools are now available to confront the threat head-on. The Antalya Memorandum on Good Practices, DHS resource guide, and United Nations Compendium all offer ways to understand and prepare for a soft target attack. Best of all, these resources are available to anyone.

About the Author: Marybeth Kelliher is a Foreign Affairs Officer in the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and Countering Violent Extremism.

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