Planned Auckland terror attack a wake-up call say crowded places security experts

New Zealand Security Magazine - December 2022

Auckland skyline

Specialist crowded places security advisory group says recent teenage terror plot presents important learnings for hospitality, retail, entertainment, and event venue operators, writes chief editor Nicholas Dynon.

It emerged in early November with the recent release of court documents that a radicalised teen had planned to carry out an Islamic State-inspired attack in Auckland, including compiling a list of around 80 potential target locations. Restaurants, shopping malls, transport hubs, and entertainment hotspots such as Spark Arena, SkyCity, and Auckland Town Hall, were among the targets.

“It’s no surprise that the individual considered these locations as potential targets,” said Chris Kumeroa, Chair of the Crowded Places Security Advisory Group. “These ‘crowded places’ have been shown internationally to be prime targets for terrorists due to the fact that they can accommodate large numbers of people, they have predictable patterns of use, and that an attack in such premises can effect maximum casualties and terror.”

A voluntary security industry body, the Crowded Places Security Advisory Group (CPSAG) was formed after the New Zealand Police sought assistance from the New Zealand Security Association to identify how the industry might contribute its expertise to the protection of crowded places. It came hot on the heels of the September 2020 publication by police of Protecting Our Crowded Places from Attack: New Zealand’s Strategy. The strategy had a quiet launch at a time when COVID was front and centre.

“The crowded places strategy contains a suite of six documents that provide guidance to venue owners and operators on a range of topics from recognising threats to detecting hostile reconnaissance,” said Chris Kumeroa.

“One of the things that the coverage of the Auckland terror plot tells us is that owners and operators of crowded places need to understand how they can put in place measures to prevent would-be terrorists from gathering intelligence about their venue online and from conducting hostile reconnaissance in and around their venue in the weeks or months prior to a planned attack.”

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Knowing the signs of attack planning

“The threat of an attack on a crowded place is something we’ve known about in New Zealand since the Christchurch terror attack,” said CPSAG member Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor. “With the tourism and hospitality sectors getting back to business post-COVID, we’re seeing more cruise ships, more concerts, and more sporting events, so it’s critical we’re vigilant and taking a joined-up approach.

“Tourism, hospitality and event venues are ‘soft targets’. They can’t be fortresses. They need to be open enough to be welcoming to visitors and patrons, and their staff equipped enough to be able to identify the terrorist from the tourist. How do you know what a terrorist looks like?

“It’s about being proactive and identifying unusual activity or behaviour that might be possible indicators of attack planning and rehearsing, such as an individual loitering in the vicinity of the venue, displaying unusual interest in a venue’s security measures, or wandering into restricted or work areas,” said Dr Sullivan-Taylor. “Staff need to be equipped to identify, report, manage and respond to any concerns.”

From her research and involvement in the UK multiagency approach and from recent events in New Zealand such as the Christchurch attack, Dr Sullivan-Taylor has identified that we need to take a multi layered approach to situational awareness via a combination of vigilance on the ground and on cyber platforms.

Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor

Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor.

“In addition to recognising suspicious activity, disrupting the preparation of an attack also means being careful not to place information on a venue’s website or social media accounts, such as detailed floorplans, that may inadvertently assist an attacker in their planning,” said Dr Sullivan-Taylor. “For many venues this will require a rethink of what their security means.”

Knowing the signs of violent extremism

The teen, now 20, at the centre of the Auckland terror plot had been radicalised online after taking an interest in Middle East conflicts. In his bedroom police found one of the ingredients used to make an explosive compound. His Google Cloud account included folders titled “Terror plot Recons” and “ISIS supporter-recruit”.

“We live in a world in which dis-misinformation is increasingly rife, providing ideal preconditions for those looking to radicalise vulnerable people and set them down a path towards violent extremism,” said Chris Kumeroa. “Mental health, social isolation, economic failure, and political grievance are just some of the potential factors that might make an individual more susceptible.”

“The question is, how can you identify when a person may be exhibiting the indicators of violent extremism? Trusting your instincts is important, but there are some good resources out there, including Know the signs: A guide for identifying signs of violent extremism, which was recently published by the New Zealand Secret Intelligence Service.

“New Zealand is a relatively safe country, but events in the recent past remind us that we are not immune from attacks. The government’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies are doing a great job, but we all have a part to play, and owners and operators of crowded places particularly should be on the front foot.”

According to the Ipsos 2022 National Security Public Survey published in April, ‘Terrorist attack / violent extremism in NZ’ ranked 8th in a list of threats, with 71% of respondents indicating they felt that it was a real threat of happening in the next 12 months (well ahead of the global country average of 62%). The CPSAG is establishing a register of New Zealand security consultants qualified in the provision of crowded places protective security advice to organisations on how to better protect their venues and events.