SINGAPORE: Security measures at public events must be improved even if no foolproof solution to terror attacks exists, said experts on Wednesday (May 24) after another major incident which left 22 dead and 59 wounded at a pop concert in England.
UK-born Salman Abedi, 22, blew himself up at the end of a sold-out show by pop star Ariana Grande at the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena on Monday. The Islamic State militant group has claimed responsibility – as it did after 90 were killed in a November 2015 attack in Paris, also at a concert hall.
Altogether there have been 13 terror incidents across Western Europe and over 300 lives lost since the start of 2015.
Authorities and organisers of major sports and entertainment events in countries across the globe are now considering tighter security protocols.
After the Manchester bombing, which was Britain’s second terror attack in less than two months, UK media reports suggested that bags were not thoroughly searched and concert-goers not screened carefully before entry to the venue, noted both Dr Heng Yee Kuang of the University of Tokyo’s Graduate School of Public Policy and Dr Woon Chih Yuan of the National University of Singapore.
“The suicide attacker detonated outside on the foyer,” added Dr Heng. “This suggests that while you can to some extent restrict dangerous materials from entering the venue itself, it is also important to consider the access routes in and out of the venue, especially in this case where it is linked to a major train station where you can expect bottlenecks of people to form.”
EVACUATION PLANS “CRITICAL”
Associate Professor Francesco Mancini of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy agreed, saying: “It is not only at the entrance of events, but also at the exit, as we have seen at the Manchester Arena.”
“Security forces will need to secure areas around stadiums or public spaces, as well as transportation hubs where people aggregate after a public event.”
An evacuation plan will thus be “critical” in saving lives, by getting a large number of people out of a particular venue in the shortest amount of time, said Dr Graham Ong-Webb, a research fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
He emphasised that it would be crucial to communicate this plan before the start of the event.
This could be done by informing concertgoers the location of exit and emergency points, such as through a video or public announcement. “It will give the concertgoer the requisite information to act on, should something happen,” he said.
“But I think this will require some rethinking from our (concert) organisers. I don’t quite observe any evacuation plans being communicated clearly to concertgoers and members of the public,” he added.
Concertgoers Channel NewsAsia spoke with mirrored his point. Freelance video producer Jillian Rachel Tan, who has attended over 50 music event both locally and overseas, said she has not encountered such a strategy so far.
Added 25-year-old Urshula Spemann, who attended a John Mayer concert at London’s O2 Arena earlier this month: “At those big stadiums, the emergency exits are not always very obvious, compared to like an office or mall.”
“If we were told the evacuation plan before the concert starts, I think that would minimise the chaos should there be some sort of attack.”
She also said that overall, security at some venues could be lax.
“Security checks surprisingly were quite relaxed especially for a big arena like O2,” the project manager said. “There were about maybe 20,000 people there but the queues were really fast, it was really easy to get in.”
“They didn’t really go through my bags, I just had to open it up and they just looked through it and I was good to go.”
MEASURES IN PLACE
When contacted by Channel NewsAsia, the organiser of a Britney Spears concert in June said they would be “working very closely” with its venue partner as well as police on tightening security.
“(We) will be discussing this in detail on additional measures for areas within and outside the venue,” said project manager at IME Entertainment Group, Yogesh Mehta.
Similarly, security company Certis CISCO said it works with event organisers to put in place security measures for concert events.
This includes carrying out bag checks and patrols aimed at “preventing unauthorised objects to be brought into the event… and suspicious items (from being) placed around the concert area,” said its head of protection and enforcement services Jason Tan.
The Singapore Sports Hub, which hosts large-scale sports and entertainment events, said it conducts bag checks at all events hosted within its venue, and prohibits dangerous items such as weapons and bags exceeding a certain size.
Its integrated command and control centre is fitted with surveillance software and manned around the clock by trained personnel. The venue operator said it also works closely with the authorities, and urged patrons to report suspicious activities.
On the part of the authorities, the Singapore Government has sought to protect events and buildings against terror attacks through legislation.
With the Public Order Act amended last month, organisers of large-scale events will be required to put in place necessary security measures. These include notifying the police if they expect more than 5,000 people to attend an event, and working with the police to determine the security measures required.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) will also introduce a new Infrastructure Protection Act later this year, requiring new, large-scale developments to incorporate security measures when they are being designed. The Act may also require owners of premises to adopt additional protective measures, such as bag checks, in the event of a heightened security climate.
“NEVER-ENDING CAT-AND-MOUSE STRUGGLE”
These tighter security measures will “greatly help as part of the overall effort to mitigate the risk of terrorism, and improve general public safety”, said Mr Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman, an RSIS research fellow who previously served with MHA and the Singapore police.
“But we must first accept that we live in a landscape where it is not possible to prevent all terrorist plots.”
Dr Heng agreed. “Singapore’s new security measures will raise the bar and make it more difficult for terror plots to succeed,” he said. “But it is a never-ending cat-and-mouse struggle with terror plots and methods of attack which constantly evolve.”
“It is important to bear in mind that the risks can be reduced and mitigated through measures such as screenings and concrete barriers, but there can never be 100 per cent ‘perfect security’.”
“Police and security forces have to be right all the time in disrupting terror plots, but terrorists only need to get through once,” he added.
“There is no 100% security,” echoed Prof Mancini. “Governments will need to increase domestic security budgets, maybe by moving over some resources from armaments.”
Dr Ong-Webb also issued a caution: “It’s very hard to close all gaps, you cannot securitise everything.”
“In light of the series of attacks around the world… we’re going to have to deal with a trade-off,” he said. “Things will have to become more inconvenient in order for us to achieve certain security objectives.”
“But it’s the only way for us to mitigate and blunt the casualty and destruction that occurs because of a terrorist attack.”
Added Dr Woon: “Besides stepping up security measures, you also need the help of ordinary citizens to remain vigilant and report suspicious people or incidents to the relevant authorities in a timely fashion.”
“People must be sufficiently educated and informed about the dangers of terrorism and be prepared to act appropriately in the event of emergencies.”
By Wendy Wong and Justin Ong