Tragedy has targeted a handful of cities in the past months, leaving dozens killed; four in London on March 22, 11 in St. Petersburg on April 3, four in Stockholm on April 7 and two days later 29 and 18 in the Egyptian cities of Tanta and Alexandria, respectively. With some cities vowing to ramp up security – Paris, for instance, announced plans earlier this year to build a bulletproof wall around the Eiffel Tower – we ask how urban security can help make cities safer.
Urban security guru at U.S.-based Middle East and Africa consortium of security services providers (MEASC) and author of Building Security: Handbook for Architectural Planning and Design, Barbara A. Nadel explains that urban security is a collaborative process among people with different skills working together to solve problems and develop solutions for enhancing public safety.
From architects, engineers and planners designing the built environment, to security tech gurus who know where and when to apply the latest electronics, and building owners, facility managers, law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies sharing pertinent information and strategies, each group has a unique role in contributing to public safety.
According to Mohamed-Omer “Mo” Bakheit, consultant to Egyptian security authorities between 2006 and 2016 and an urban security veteran at MEASC, architecture can contribute to or protect against terrorist attacks in three ways: blast mitigation, detection and surveillance.
“The single most important criteria for Explosives Protection or Mitigation is – stand off or set back area or perimeter,” Bakheit explains to progrss. “This involves calculating the blast radius or distance from the blast to the actual spot where humans and buildings can be impacted harmfully. The stand off distance for an explosion from a 500lb car bomb is different to that of a suicide bomber with a 30lb belt around them.”
He explains that if municipalities can set a defensive perimeter (AKA stand off area) that is far enough from where the detonation occurs, that is where fences, gates or guard kiosks to screen all entry leading to the facility or “soft target” – such as a church, school, mall, or compound – should be placed. “If there is no room for a stand off area because the soft target is right next to the street, then we can go to several hardening options.”
Another option that enjoys the “lowest cost, is rapid to deploy, but is very ugly” is a blast blanket, curtain or net, which is a special-fabric-made armor that is often used by security forces in battlefields to shield from blasts. “This would protect from large shrapnel pieces but may not protect against small ones or bullets, but it’s better than nothing,” he says.
Another low cost solution he lists down is a high wall that has a blast blanket inside it; adding concertina wire to the top of the wall can prevent anyone from scaling. However, Bakheit criticizes this solution, noting that a major blast could send the razor sharp wire flying into buildings or people.
The most expensive option is facilities’ hardening – Nadel’s speciality. Facilities’ hardening is either retrofitting an existing building to harden it, or building a new facility to different levels of hardening – all the way from defense against crowd-sourced projectiles to complex explosives, all the way to other chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defence (CBRNE) attacks.
According to Nadel, a comprehensive security plan consists of three elements: design, technology and operations. “Effective communication and planning is vital to preparedness for an all hazards approach to public safety, and determining the risk levels for various situations and venues. All hazards refers to a variety of potential threats, such as natural disasters, terrorism, cyberwarfare, and crime,” she explains.
“There are many ways to enhance urban security through good design of the built environment,” Nadel continues. “The destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 in New York City and the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, were benchmark events that resulted in loss of life but also provided many lessons learned on building design and security in the US and overseas.” She adds that with so many variables, security is not a one-size-fits-all; every environment, building type and location has a unique set of issues and risks.
Turning to people’s right to space, Nadel says that public plazas can feature landscaping, water elements, public art, and street furniture designed for security without creating a fortress-look of concrete barriers. “Public buildings and critical infrastructure ideally need setbacks from the street to reduce potential damage from vehicle bombs. Well-designed plazas can serve as the standoff distance, or setback, from urban buildings, to offer safety and a lively public space,” she explains, agreeing with Bakheit’s take on standoff/setback locations.
Bakheit, on the other hand, finds surveillance cameras useless in protecting and detecting dangers unless they can alert security ahead of time so that the attacker is caught or neutralized before they set off the blast or incendiary. Bakheit recommends that in order for cameras and sensors to be effective, three factors must be in effect: while the cameras must be AI-based and independent from human intervention, they must also be capable of detecting, tracking and alerting of suspicious behavior in humans, animals or vehicles. “We now have firms that have developed cameras with built-in sensors that can detect trace explosives, chemicals and RDDs from 100 meters away.”
When asked his opinion about the on-plane electronics ban imposed on some countries in the Middle East, Bakheit called it very dumb. “Passenger screening now allows me to screen for all CBRNE. Besides, the Terrorist will now try and stick the explosives laden laptop in his checked baggage.” And unless that plane has Ballistics Protection in the Cargo Hold, he adds, the explosives will successfully be detonated.
According to Bakheit, one unsuccessful case study of crime control and urban security failure is the misfortunate events of the Boston Marathon bombings. On April 15, 2013, two homemade bombs detonated near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds, including 16 who lost their limbs. Bakheit describes how authorities handled this incident as a fiasco. “It was the first known “Terrorist Attack” or “Breach” after 9/11; more so, after the US and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had established the world’s most comprehensive, Critical Infrastructure Protection Program (CIPP) the blueprint for securing virtually every segment of society,” he says.
“It was a failure in precisely full spectrum situational awareness! In other words, Boston Police Department and DHS let their guard down, both in Technological Surveillance, and Human Intelligence (HUMINT). My motto and Barbara’s is SEMPER VIGILO! Remain ever vigilant!”
“Security measures often evolve as lessons learned from past events become clear,” says Nadel. Before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and 2001 destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City, for example, buildings were designed according to different criteria. She illustrates further why she finds the 1995 GSA bombing an unsuccessful story: “The original General Service Administration (GSA) Oklahoma City Federal Building was sited right on the street without much setback. The truck bomb caused flying glass pieces in the building that caused fatalities, and shards landed blocks away.” Thereafter, GSA changed their standards for building setbacks, and researched types of blast resistant glass and window systems for new buildings.
Moving to 2001’s 9/11 targeting the World Trade Center, Nadel says that the complex was designed and built in the 1960s, when building codes, technology, materials, and structural design were not as advanced as they are today. “After 9/11, building codes in NYC and elsewhere were modified to reflect building security as a result of increased risks and threats.”
Nadel finds that new US embassies, designed and constructed in the last few years by the US Department of State Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, reflect a sophisticated level of design that respects local host country conditions while addressing security, sustainability, and operational efficiency on a global scale. “New embassies in London, Berlin, and Beijing, to name just a few, exemplify these concepts,” she evaluates.
Technology is a critical component in the success of crime and terrorism prevention, and – according to Bakheit – two of the best examples of using technology in urban security are Israel and USA. However, tradecraft, intelligence and law enforcement skills, along with risk and security assessment best practices, are of equal importance.
“All of the above should come under the umbrella of something Egypt has never had; CIPP or NIPP; Critical or National Infrastructure Protection Program,” he explains, turning his critical eye to his motherland.
Returning to the Tanta and Alexandria church bombings during Palm Sunday mass, the urban security veteran dissects the incidents to identify where authorities went wrong with regards to this aspect of urban strategy. He explains that countless security firms have made recommendations to the Egyptian government on how to protect soft targets – especially the Coptic community and houses of worship. “Forget even technology; on days of religious events and crowd gatherings, the military and police should combine to close off streets and set up checkpoints and controlled entry and exit points, as far away from the actual gathering as possible, like I illustrated before to be the setback/standoff area-blast perimeter calculation. Plus – it is very easy to sweep the gathering spot for any IED or other plants using radio frequency signals, CBRNE for explosives and BioChem.”
“One method I would advocate for at risk facilities like churches, is to build underground bunkers, or have one side of the facility below ground, and a facade above ground,” Bakheit adds. “Utilizing crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED), we can make these hardened designs beautiful and innovative.”
Nodding to Bakheit’s words, Nadel defines CPTED as a well-known technique as well as a low-tech approach to public safety and situational awareness in neighborhoods and communities. “Good visibility, lighting, trimmed shrubbery and a police presence in collaboration with the community are some of the factors which make people feel safe in residential and commercial areas. Cooperation with local law enforcement and community policy is essential,” she continues, adding that the New York Police Department’s slogan is: “If you see something, say something.”
Increasingly used by city security authorities, predictive policing is another strategy of urban security that uses mathematical, predictive and analytical techniques in law enforcement to identify a wide range of potential criminal activities. Predictive policing methods fall under four general categories: methods for predicting crimes, offenders, perpetrators’ identities and victims. Speaking of privacy when it comes to surveillance and predictive policing, as a Security Professional, a 17-year IEEE member and 11-year ASIS member Bakheit argues: “If predictive policing is conducted under a constitutional guideline then I am 100% for it. It’s a small price to pay to give up a portion of one’s privacy – in exchange for greater safety and actionable intelligence.”
Above all, though, the duo agree that it is vigilance and preparedness that are key to urban security – particularly in an age where terrorism continually hits cities across the globe.
“Preparedness is the key, well before anything happens. People should know how and where to exit buildings, especially during loss of power, an incident or a fire, and what to do in the event of an attack. Buildings can be hardened with blast-resistant materials and glass. Plazas and public spaces can be designed to prevent vehicles from ramming buildings and infrastructure,” she lists down. “It’s up to security experts, building owners, and public officials to anticipate and monitor for threats and advise the public. It’s very much a collaborative effort,” Nadel concludes.