Dortmund bombs highlight challenge of combating modern terrorism acts

David Conn
Police patrols at Signal Iduna Park prior to the rearranged Champions League quarter-final between Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images

The placing of bombs targeted at Borussia Dortmund on the public road the team bus was taking to Signal Iduna Park highlights the acute difficulty of countering random acts of modern terrorism, even with greatly improved security at sports stadiums in recent years.

Dortmund’s Champions League quarter-final first-leg tie against Monaco was rescheduled to be played on Wednesday after it was postponed following the pipe-bomb blasts which caused injuries to one player, the Spanish defender Marc Bartra, and a policeman accompanying the bus.

Major football matches, high-profile sporting events and, to use the current language of security training, all “crowded places” have been recognised as potentially serious terrorism targets for more than a decade in the UK, particularly since the 7 July 2005 London transport suicide bombings.

Across Europe the threat of terrorism at sporting events has been given enhanced priority following the triple suicide bombings outside the Stade de France in Paris in November 2015, during the football friendly between France and Germany. The security measures in place, and vigilance by stewards, was recognised then to have prevented the attackers entering the stadium and potentially causing scores of deaths. Instead, they were kept away and only one person – a Portuguese shuttle bus driver, Manuel Colaco Dias, who had just dropped passengers off at the game – was killed, along with the bombers.

Three days after the Paris attacks, on 17 November 2015, Germany’s next friendly match, against Holland, was called off 90 minutes before the scheduled kick-off and the stadium evacuated, following a tip-off from French security agents that terrorists planned to detonate three bombs inside the stadium. Belgium’s scheduled friendly against Spain was also called off because of the increased terrorist threat after the Paris attacks, which were carried out by assailants from Brussels.

In another devastating incident targeted at a football ground, on 10 December 2016, 31 police officers and seven other people were killed in two bombings outside the Vodafone Arena in Istanbul, in the evening after a match between Besiktas and Bursaspor.

“Football matches and crowded events are recognised as targets for terrorism, with tens of thousands of people in the same location and the high profile of television coverage,” says John Beattie, president of the European Safety and Stadium Management Association. “Heightened security measures have been in place at major venues in the UK and Europe particularly since the Paris attacks, and counter-terrorism is a key part of planning for events.”

Modern stadium design now incorporates anti-terrorism planning, with blast-proof steel used in the construction of major venues, and in the UK all voids in new or refurbished stadiums are inspected by police before being sealed, to guard against them being used to conceal bombs. Security operations at matches include having outer and inner “rings” of protection against possible assailants, surveillance of the crowd by police and stewards including plain-clothes officers and, increasingly, physical measures including barriers to attacks on the stadium or spectators by vehicles.

In the UK, the National Counter Terrorism Security Office first issued detailed protective security advice for stadiums and arenas in 2006, responding to the increased awareness of terrorist attacks after the London bombings. Setting out recommended practices for risk assessment, intelligence and protective measures against a range of possible attacks, Nactso cautioned: “It is accepted that there is no such concept as absolute safety or absolute security in combating the threat of terrorism but it is possible through the use of this guidance to reduce the risk as low as reasonably practicable.”

Nactso has run regular training programmes on counter-terrorism at sports events and crowded places, Project Argus and Project Griffin, regularly since 2004, and in May last year ran a briefing at Wembley stadium for football officials from the UK, Europe and Uefa.

Last year the Council of Europe – of which the UK is a member, separately from its terminating membership of the European Union – produced a convention on “an integrated safety, security and service approach at football matches and other sports events”, which effectively makes good practice on counter-terrorism, and cooperation between nations, compulsory. Significantly, experts say, the convention replaces the European agreement signed in 1985 after the Heysel stadium disaster, which focused predominantly on countering hooliganism and misbehaviour by football supporters and did not significantly contemplate terrorist attacks.

Uefa, the European football governing body, works with the EU, police, security services and its member clubs on safety and security for its club and international tournaments and has a delegate at every match, although the host club’s safety officers and local police are responsible for safety.

Yet these increased security measures at and around modern sports stadiums, on which a great deal of work and expertise is harnessed, also illustrate the general vulnerability to terrorist attack in the streets around them. “People should be reassured that a great amount of work is done to assess and protect against risks at sports stadiums across Europe,” says Beattie. “But the nature of those risks is changing all the time.

“We cannot control what goes on in public places; we all rely on the security services and police, and there is a limit to what can be done: how can you protect a public road to and from a stadium?”

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