If the Islamic State terrorist organization deliberately targeted Ariana Grande or her May 22, 2017, concert, new challenges will be presented for security professionals who provide close quarters protection to entertainment stars. At the least, the bomber’s focus on the crowded venue at the Manchester Stadium will require executive protection executives to sharpen their focus on terrorist threats to the industry and whether to re-assess flight/hide contingencies for their principals.
Iconic Entertainers are a Target
While the investigation into the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena continues, the so-called Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for the attack. All indicators at this point in the investigation point to this claim being credible – and likely true. In the ongoing, major international counterterrorism investigation, UK investigators working with Libyan counterparts are likely to uncover important clues about IS’ inspiration, sponsorship or direction of the attack during their continuing efforts in Libya, where the bomber Salman Abeidi appears to have had contact with IS over the past year.
Iconic entertainers have been and will remain attractive targets for IS-directed or -inspired terrorist attacks because they attract substantial crowds and promote social norms and values which conflict with the IS worldview. While the performers will remain the priority target, a secondary, but still attractive target will be their fan base.
The Manchester attack and the November 13, 2015, attack on Stade de France in Paris were conducted outside the venues’ security perimeter. In other words, after initial “casing,” the bombers assessed the venue security operations at both stadiums to be too good to breach. In Paris, after one of the bombers attempted to enter the stadium, an alert venue security team member identified and designated the IS suicide bomber for additional screening – which triggered the bomber to detonate his device. In Manchester, the security perimeter at the stadium, where arriving Tube passengers entered the Arena, was just beyond the point where the bomber detonated his device. On arrival at the stadium, Abedi more than likely quickly ascertained he had no chance of penetrating the security cordon and settled on an attack in the security screening area – still deadly, but likely less so than had he managed to enter the performance venue.
Hunker Down Plans are Important
The Manchester and Paris attacks underscore the importance for close quarter’s protection teams having a shelter-in-place (“hunker down”) plan in place at each performance venue. In Paris, the IS suicide bombers detonated their devices during an ongoing soccer match played at France’s largest venue, the Stade de France (SDF). Two of the devices exploded on SDF grounds while the French President and German Foreign Minister were physically in the venue. After the second blast, President Hollande was escorted to the SDF’s security control room inside the Stadium, probably the safest place his security team could identify in the stadium, to monitor the unfolding attacks around Paris and await secure and orderly exfiltration.
Chaos and a heavy law enforcement response in the immediate aftermath of an incident may argue against an attempt to exfiltrate Principal Talent from a venue immediately after an incident. Frantic crowds will defeat a speedy exfiltration, creating other security problems, and security cordons necessary to isolate the crime scene will further complicate egress.
Islamic State and al-Qaida Remain Focused on Spectacular Attacks
Reports in early June 2017 linking the Manchester bomber Salman Abedi to contacts with IS in Libya who were connected to the Paris attacks emphasize the relevance of pop culture to terrorist groups seeking high-profile targets for their attacks. As international military forces continue to squeeze IS in Iraq and Syria, the group (or its foreign affiliates) will likely redouble its often threatened efforts to retaliate by attacking the homelands of coalition partners. The large immigrant communities in the UK, France, Belgium and Germany, and so-called lone wolves elsewhere, provide fertile ground for terrorist groups seeking sympathizers and possibly foot soldiers such as Abeidi.
In spite of pressure, IS/AQ remain capable of sophisticated attacks. Manchester bomber Abeidi allgededly used clandestine tradecraft (“burner” cellphones, encrypted messaging apps, personal communications, couriers and rigorous discipline) in his communications with IS in Libya. While the specific involvement of IS in Abedi’s targeting remains unclear (i.e. whether IS or Abedi chose the Ariana Grande concert as his target), the techniques employed indicate a sophisticated capability to conduct lethal terrorist operations across continents. Ongoing forensic examination of Abedi’s explosive device as well as the unabated UK intelligence and law enforcement investigations will provide important clues to the extent of IS’ command-and-control of the operation.
As with the Grande concert, iconic female performers could be a high-priority target for IS. The results of the investigation will ascertain whether and how Abedi chose the Grande concert to attack. It may have only been a target of convenience at which he was certain youthful crowds would be present. However, it could also be that Grande was specifically targeted, or that a western, female, “heretic” was specifically targeted. If Abedi’s IS contacts in Libya influenced (or directed) his decision, it would comport with social mores imposed on territory IS occupied and has ruled in Syria and Iraq, as well as the social dogma espoused by the puritanical Wahabbi movement within Islam which inspires IS and AQ. Western female entertainers, who embody business and financial success and project unabashed sexuality and gender equality, threaten the IS worldview, so could present attractive targets. Whether Grande’s concert was simply a target of convenience or a specific attack directed by IS will have significant implications for executive protection firms supporting iconic performers. Protecting Principal Talent from paparazzi and overzealous fans is one thing; protection against a resilient, sophisticated and lethal terrorist organization is game changing protective challenge.
Drones as the Next Generation Attack Vector
If security perimeters are pushed farther from stadiums to protect crowds, determined and well-financed attackers are likely to seek capabilities enabling them to circumvent the perimeters altogether; for instance, using a drone – or a swarm of them – to deliver explosives closer or directly to targets performing on stage. IS has used drones in Iraq to both surveil coalition military positions and to deliver small quantities of high explosive to coalition targets with lethal results. Such stand-off weapons offer dramatically scaled capabilities to a determined terrorist actor for which current security protocols are inadequate.
Security professionals in the close-quarters or executive protection fields need to keep abreast of global trends as well as local developments which could adversely impact their principals’ movements. For those specialists focused on the entertainment sector and iconic performers, the bare minimum recommendations would include:
Develop a shelter-in-place contingency plan for each performance venue and movement, coordinating as necessary with local venue security and law enforcement officials.
Ensure detailed exfiltration plans – with local law enforcement pre-briefing and real-time support – are negotiated in advance.
Cultivate contact (direct or through local venue security) with any local law enforcement in their venue control rooms (“know where to go”).
Ensure venue security has a counter-drone plan in place.
Keep abreast of terrorist targeting developments and incorporate lessons-learned into ongoing physical security planning.
Enhance physical security operations with intelligence to prepare for and ensure appropriate response to any adverse developments.