Q&A: Soft Targets
Print Issue: April 2016
Jennifer Hesterman, Colonel, U.S. Air Force (Retired), discusses her book Soft Target Hardening, which was named the 2015 ASIS Security Book of the Year. Available from ASIS; asisonline.org; Item #2239; 322 pages; $69 (members); $76 (nonmembers).
Q. Why are soft targets increasingly attractive to terrorists?
A. Soft target, civilian-centric places that are not typically fortified—such as schools, churches, hospitals, malls, hotels, restaurants, and recreational venues—have little money to spend on security. Frequently, they must balance security, aesthetics, and a positive experience for customers.
Terrorists select soft targets because there are many, possibly hundreds, of them in small towns and cities; they are vulnerable, so the odds of success are high and the terror effect is amplified among civilians. The story also stays in the news longer—the soft target attack in San Bernardino received far more coverage for almost twice the length of time compared to the Ft. Hood shooting. Military and government workers are generally seen as more legitimate targets than civilians, so soft targets provide more of the outrage, shock, and fear that terrorists crave.
Q. What inspired you to write a book on hardening soft targets?
A. I was living in the Middle East and close to several soft target attacks. I also realized that in the United States after 9-11, we further reinforced hard targets like government buildings and military installations, while soft targets are increasingly in the crosshairs but unprotected. I traveled all over the Middle East and Southwest Asia, and saw how soft targets are protected against attack. I wanted to apply some of these lessons to the civilian sector.
Q. Which soft targets are being hardened in the United States?
A. Schools are further along the spectrum due to the rise of school shootings and stabbings. Mall security is much improved after the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, but shopping venues are still extremely vulnerable. Churches have a unique problem due to their open, inviting culture even after the Charleston shooting. Of course synagogues, mosques, and Sikh temples are moving towards a more hardened posture as the result of a rise in domestic terrorist activity. Hospitals usually don’t realize they are targets for terrorist attack or exploitation. Every type of soft target is different and requires tailored hardening tactics.
Q. What trends should security professionals look out for?
A. The insider threat is a growing concern. Insider attacks have the greatest possibility of success in terms of destruction of a target and mass casualties. The perpetrator can preposition items, understands the layout of the facility, has unfiltered access, and knows vulnerabilities to exploit.
We spend a great deal of time in vetting people during the hiring process, but new employees are basically left alone after the onboarding process. Venues like stadiums or concert halls may perform inadequate background checks on seasonal workers. The book discusses added layers of protection such as using behavioral detection techniques, a buddy system where a seasoned worker is paired with a new worker, and rules ensuring that no one is ever alone.