Soft Targets, Hard Challenges
Soft targets pose a particularly difficult protection challenge. Take, for example, the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, when concertgoers enjoying a music festival at the Las Vegas Village open performance venue suddenly became targets for an active shooter firing more than 1,100 rounds from his hotel suite.
The scope of the tragedy—the deadliest U.S. mass shooting committed by an individual, which left 58 dead—made a deep impression on many interested in security, including officials at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). "The Las Vegas shooting was really a catalyzing moment for our department," Bob Kolasky, DHS deputy assistant secretary for infrastructure protection, tells Security Management.
Ten days after the shooting, U.S. President Donald Trump nominated Kirstjen Nielsen to be the new secretary of homeland security. When Nielsen took over the position, one of her first priorities was to raise awareness of DHS' existing security guidance and resources, so that they could be well-used by those who need them, Kolasky says.
"We want to make sure our security resources are publicized, so they can help," he explains. As the Vegas shooting illustrated, soft targets seemed to be a good initial focus for DHS "to advance the security of things that traditionally haven't been that secure," he adds.
And so earlier this year DHS issued a resource guide and security plan overview for Soft Targets and Crowded Places (ST-CPs). In the overview, DHS defines ST-CPs as "locations that are easily accessible to large numbers of people and that have limited security or protective measures in place making them vulnerable to attack." This includes spaces such as schools, sports venues, transportation hubs, shopping venues, bars, restaurants, hotels, places of worship, tourist attractions, theaters, and civic spaces, according to DHS.
"ST-CPs do not have to be buildings and can include open spaces such as parks and pedestrian malls. ST-CPs will not necessarily be crowded at all times—crowd densities may vary," DHS says in the overview. "Securing these locations and venues is essential to preserving our way of life and sustaining the engine of our economy."
The guide is a catalog of soft target resources for businesses, first responders, government, and the general public. It is broken up into action categories such as identify suspicious behavior; protect, screen, and allow access to facilities; prepare and respond to active assailants; prevent and respond to bombings; and protect against unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
DHS decided to include the latter category on UAS because of two recent developments, Kolasky says. First, various incidents overseas have demonstrated that some terrorists have the capacity to use UAS to cause harm. "We see that the threat is real," he explains. Second, for some U.S. sports facilities, defending against UAS "is something that is a top-of-mind concern," he says.
"There's demand from the security profession and there's a threat that warranted it," Kolasky explains.
The resources that the guide links to in each action category vary, and include informational materials, in-person and online training opportunities, videos, websites, and other tools. Although some of the resources were created in collaboration with partners, the DHS guide does not link to any resources that have no government connection. "That would be a more time-consuming effort and one that is fraught, at least a little bit, with the implications that recommending suggests endorsement," Kolasky says. "For now, we haven't worked through that."
One soft target expert, Jennifer Hesterman, says she was "really surprised" when the resource guide and overview were made public, because previously the agency had not been active with resource promotion. "They have been pretty quiet on the DHS side," says Hesterman, the author of Soft Target Hardening: Protecting People from Attack, which won ASIS International's 2015 Security Book of the Year Award.
Nevertheless, Hesterman says she is pleased with the issuance of the guide, for a few reasons. One is that it is a valuable public acknowledgment by the federal government of the risks of attacks. This is helpful at a time when some members of the public suspect that security professionals sometimes overplay risk because it benefits them professionally. "I've been called a merchant of doom," she says. "People think we just want to generate business, and so we will tell them horrible and scary things."
Moreover, given the frequency of attacks like school shootings, some people are experiencing "security fatigue," and they simply do not want to discuss the topic any more, Hesterman explains. And to avoid causing widespread panic among the citizenry, federal officials are often measured in their communications about risk, so sometimes no sense of urgency comes through.
This is understandable, she says, but it's also important to realize that growing threats are out there, such as more attacks on critical infrastructure facilities. Citizens have the right to understand such risks, so in that respect the new DHS guide is helpful, she adds.
As for the section on UAS, Hesterman says it is a valuable asset for security practitioners. "Terrorists are already using drones to advance their goals," she explains. She also emphasizes that, on this issue like many others, "we have to think about what's next." Drones are also being used for security purposes, "but we have to think about how drones can be hacked. They can he hacked and grounded," she says.
Another growing area of vulnerability for soft targets is insider threats, she adds. In part, this is driven by a principle she explains as: "People have a public life, a private life, and a secret life." That secret life could include a gambling problem or another secret addiction that could push the person to extreme actions, and even those close to them may not realize that they are unraveling. "Insider threat is huge, and it's totally overlooked," Hesterman says.
Finally, Hesterman says the potential soft target threat of terror groups like ISIS has also grown. Overseas, these groups have attacked soft targets like schools, whether it be Boko Haram kidnapping students in Nigeria or the Taliban killing more than 100 in an officer school in Pakistan. For these militant groups, soft targets are legitimate ones. "Terror groups and lone actors can leverage those to fit their agenda," she says. In fact, one statistic holds that 90 percent of war casualties are civilians, she adds. "Now it's like downtown is where the battle is."
The soft target guide and overview may turn out to be the first in a series of efforts by DHS to better leverage its preventative resources, officials say. The department released a similar guide and overview for school shootings in August (which will be covered in a future issue of Security Management), and officials are conducting a departmentwide review to determine what other resources can be promoted.