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Target Hardening: An Effective Approach to Terrorism Prevention? The Case of Manchester Arena

Since the attacks across Europe in prominent locations including Manchester, Paris and Brussels, which each saw terrorists targeting areas outside of the security perimeter, there has been a move toward target hardening as a means of prevention. Moving the security perimeter outwards to prevent future attacks might seem like a logical approach, but does it work in practice? What steps might potential terrorists take to overcome this development? Will it succeed in preventing attacks altogether, or simply cause terrorists to change their M.O.? These are all questions that this article seeks to answer, shedding new light on the changing arena of terrorism.

Although target hardening is considered a "tried and tested" means of crime prevention by Criminologists, who have seen it used to tackle crimes including household burglary and shoplifting in the past; is there a chance that by expanding the perimeter of protected targets, we are simultaneously exposing more people to the threat? Will terrorist organisations simply shrug their shoulders and walk away from terrorism as a means of achieving their aims? Or, is the more likely outcome that potential terrorists will seek ways to adapt, bringing about attacks which are infinitely more deadly, or targeting the very cyber infrastructure on which our nation is built? This article will argue that although target hardening is generally deemed to have been successful in preventing attacks on high profile locations such as airports, this is merely the calm before the storm: terrorist organisations will find new ways to disrupt, damage, and wreak havoc. Staying abreast of new and emerging research on target selection will be pivotal to ensuring our preparedness for what is to come, and we would be foolish to think that by banishing terrorism from high-profile locations, we will not, effectively, bring it closer to home.

What is Target Hardening?

In Criminology and counter-terrorism research, target hardening is generally believed to refer to actions which are intended to make it either impossible to attack an identified target, or to make it undesirable for potential attacks by increasing the risks of getting caught, along with the amount of effort and/or resources it would take to carry out a successful strike. This is a tactic used widely across the world at locations such as airports and train stations, where the removal of litter bins (which were identified as possible places to hide explosives), the introduction of extra security measures, and the need to purchase tickets/passes before gaining access (meaning traceable ID, bank details, etc.), are all measures which have been taken in the name of deterring potential terrorists. 

A Study in Target-Hardening: The Case of Manchester Arena

This approach has generally been considered to be successful, and the 2017 attack on Manchester Arena in the UK has been used as a case study, exploring the implications for the perpetrator, Salman Abedi's, decision to set off an explosive device just inside of the foyer. According to those in favour of target hardening, Abedi's ability to get inside of the arena was a result of the security being relaxed, with the concert nearing its end. If, according to these same proponents of target hardening, a security perimeter had been set up outside of the arena itself, then the number of victims (22) would have been substantially less.

Is there any truth in this statement? Surely, even if this had been the case, those leaving the event would still have presented a potential target for Abedi. In fact, the likelihood is that the crowds leaving the venue might have even meant that the number of victims would be higher. As it was, Abedi detonated his device before the concert actually ended, meaning that most attendees of the event were still inside the concert, safe from the blast's ferocity. The victims were those who were leaving early, or those who were waiting inside the foyer to meet them. If extra security had been in place, would Abedi have been deterred, or changed his mind about the attack? This seems unlikely, not only because he was reportedly not acting alone, but also because he had made all preparations to die a 'martyr' that day.

If, then, we assume that greater security measures are going to be successful in preventing terrorist attacks inside of high-profile venues and locations, what evidence is there that attackers might look elsewhere for a target? Well, if we look to the Paris attacks, which took place on the 13th of November, 2015, it is possible to draw upon some little-reported details of the three suspects' actions on the night, for insight. Aside from the events at the Bataclan Theatre and across the cafe district of Paris, a third attack also took place outside of the Stade de France, which was packed with 80,000 fans, as well as France's President Hollande, during a friendly game between France and Germany. Three men arrived late for the match, and were refused entry at the gate, reportedly because they did not have tickets. One of them later detonated his suicide vest outside of the arena, killing one other person, and leaving little of himself behind, except for a fake Syrian passport. 

This could be considered a victory, especially since the number of fatalities was substantially less than it could have been if the attacker had detonated his suicide vest inside of the packed arena. However, it also demonstrates the determinedness of those intent on carrying out terrorist attacks. Rather than returning to whatever base these men were working from, to develop a new plan (which could have taken into account the need to identify a new target), the attacker chose instead to remain, to complete his intended 'mission', and to do so in a way that would still ensure that he achieved his objective of taking human life. Had there been bigger crowds outside of the stadium, or had the attackers arrived early or at a time when there were large queues outside of the perimeter, the chances are that the outcome would have been very different. It is this adaptability and determination to cause destruction which ultimately means that target hardening will never be enough to prevent terrorist attack. Given time, terrorist organisations will adapt, and will simply move their focus to locations at which crowds are guaranteed. If this means detonating devices outside of high-profile locations, all the better, since this removes the need to figure out a way of getting inside. And in the meantime, there are always calculated cyber attacks, such as the one launched on the NHS in 2017, which only avoided casualties as a result of quick-thinking and, quite plainly, sheer luck. Clearly, there are still many possibilities that need to be considered in terms of unintended consequence, before target hardening can be considered an effective means of terrorism prevention.

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