Ariana Grande concert bombing: Was lax arena security really to blame?

Because yesterday’s horrific Ariana Grande concert bombing took place at a sports arena, and because I’ve written about sports arena security, I feel like I should have something to say about it, beyond the obvious fact that it’s horrific. With the sketchy details available so far, here’s what I can think of:

  • The explosion went off in the arena lobby, so the obvious question is how the bomber got the explosives in past security. (Assuming the lobby was inside the arena gates, which isn’t entirely clear from this diagram.) The bomb is described as an “improvised explosive device,” which could be made entirely (or almost entirely) from plastic explosives, and thus be difficult to scan for with metal detectors.
  • The mother of a 19-year-old who was at the concert (and uninjured) said that “although her son had water taken off him, his bags were not searched and security did not check what he was carrying,” something that was echoed by other attendees. That’s dumb security, obviously, but exactly the kind of “security theater” that stadiums and arenas engage in when faced with the dilemma of how to get tens of thousands of fans to their seats while also doing some minimal security search, which means minimal is exactly what you get.
  • This is almost certainly going to lead to increased security measures like more stringent bag checks and more walkthrough metal detectors, neither of which I’m all that confident will do much to prevent future bombings, especially since not only can IEDs be strapped to someone’s body rather than carried in a bag, but a bomber could have done about the same amount of damage standing just outside the arena lobby instead of just inside it.
  • The most effective way to prevent attacks on innocent concertgoers is to get fewer people in the world thinking that that’s an effective way to get their point across. That’s hard.

And that’s all I’ve got. I’d love to be able to blame this on someone (other than the bomber), or suggest an easy fix, but I’m not too hopeful on either count. In the meantime, my sympathies to the families of those killed and injured. What a damn world.

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30 comments on “Ariana Grande concert bombing: Was lax arena security really to blame?

  1. This is a good reaction. I always feel like I am most vulnerable when I’m standing in a security line waiting to be searched. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I agree with you that the increase in “security theater” that will likely follow last night’s events will do little to stop the next person from carrying out an attack.

  2. Sort of like msg/ penn station. Lobby part of public area of station where people meet up for ride home. So arena security not relevant except probably reason why incident outside cordon.

    1. Ken, do you know that from personal experience of the venue? I still haven’t been able to find a good photo or schematic of where the explosion took place.

  3. Criminals are lazy and always look for an easy mark. They could’ve struck on Saturday EPL game , instead they choose a teen concert. I am sure security was basic.

  4. A senseless tragedy that will hopefully lead to improved, yet efficient security measures.

    Could the NFL requirement of a small clear plastic bag become the standard? As Neil mentioned, that won’t prevent devices worn on the body, but it would make bag checks a bit easier.

  5. What a tragedy. I couldn’t agree more. I think in some ways it’s easier for suicide bombers to attack big events when there’s stringent security at the door.

  6. I’m not sure I agree on the “theater” point.

    Generally, the point of these searches is to make a terror act harder to pull off–impossible is not achievable. And if it does happen, to keep it in the open–the worst case is to have it in an enclosed space, where panic can occur.

    The Paris soccer bombing gives an indication of how to avoid the even worse case.

  7. This is the problem with downtown arenas in general. I immediately thought about Golden 1 Center, and that place is very clearly a sitting duck.

    You hate to start thinking like a terrorist, but you have to if you’re running one of these places. I don’t think they have in Sacramento. At all. That’s a soft target. And apparently, terrorists don’t care who they target. A bunch of 8-20 year old young women? Let’s go.

  8. How about we stop intervening in the Third World. ISIS is horrific, Assad is a tyrannical bastard, but let’s recognize it is not our problem.

  9. Thinking a little more about Golden 1 Center, at least one of the entrances has the metal detectors inside the entrance. Yes, you are inside the building when you pass through metal detectors.

    This can’t last. It seems like an incredible oversight to me.

    I think the “apartments with private entrances!” will have to go as well. I mean, just think about it. Duh.

      1. And the big thing is that you cannot fix it. How do you get the secured perimeter at least a block from the arena? You can’t do it. So it’s just a soft target.

        1. Wherever the perimeter is there is going to be a big clump of people. The reaction to bombings cannot be ” oh we are just going to stop all gatherings of people”. The security theater is as much to avoid liability lawsuits as anything I suspect.

          You need to be able to say you were doing something severe, so if something bad happens you cannot be blamed later, even if it is a meaningless and ineffective gesture.

          1. Actually, there wouldn’t be as big a clump of people. As you get farther from any large building, the concentration of people will fall.

            That’s just mathematically how it has to work.

          2. Well, depending on how many entrances there are. If you have a huge perimeter but only a handful of security checkpoints, voila, clumping.

  10. I really respect your writing and your site think you’ve missed the mark with some of your points although i’m sure as more information comes out someone will correct me:
    The device was made up of an explosive charge (possibly home made) which would not have activated metal detectors I agree, however the perpetrator is believed to have used nuts and bolts as shrapnel to increase the anti personnel threat- making the device detectable with metal detectors, or potentially also with devices designed to detect explosives which i can’t imagine were in place. In the Middle East, attackers are known to wrap the explosive and shrapnel around their person with cling film or the like to make it harder to detect than the movie style vest, although in a bag is also a possibility with the lax security.
    My suggestion is that it appears the bomber entered the foyer at the end of the concert rather than the beginning. I believe he entered when the security were preparing to deal with the people leaving the concert rather than watching the door as they would have done before and during the event, minimising his time in public with the device and allowing him to slip in with the people waiting to collect attendees.
    It feels like a combination of an inherently soft target with low expectation of risk and accordingly limited equipment, along with limitations in procedure for the security staff. But it’s entirely understandable for there to have been flaws, it was so unexpected and these security personnel are more trained to deal with people smuggling small contraband rather than terrorists, lessons will be learned but there will always be opportunities. My thoughts are with thise involved as ever in this awful situation.

    1. The news about the nuts and bolts wasn’t reported at the time I posted this — you’re right, that would have been caught by a metal detector.

      However, as it appears now, the explosion likely took place *outside* the arena, in a public atrium between the arena and the neighboring railway station where parents waited for their kids after the show. Which is exactly what security experts have been warning: If you increase security for people entering the building, terrorists can just attack people as they enter or leave.

      1. That is not even getting into how easy it would be in the vast majority of these cases to just bum rush through security if you actually have a bomb strapped to you and are a suicide bomber. These are not crack personnel, and are frequently busy/distracted/overwhelmed. Just look for a line with a couple small women, wait until they are distracted, and run right past. Worst case scenario you just detonate right there in that giant commotion, more than likely you can break though far enough to get well inside.

        Though frankly from a body count standpoint detonating at the security line is probably your best bet.

        Any reasonably free society is just filled with soft targets anywhere by its nature, so hardening tiny portions of it is a fool’s errand.

  11. The real balancing act here is if the line for security becomes too big, that can become the target. If you’re intent isn’t to take down an airplane, or destroy the venue, a long security line is just as enticing a target as the interior of the arena/stadium, I’ve thought this every time I was stuck in one of these lines. I mean, there is no good solution here, that’s just the painful reality.

  12. Here is a fun little security theater story from the Xcel Center in Saint Paul. So I went to the state HS hockey tournament 2 years ago (I go every year). People bring in lots of stuff including signs and whatever. My ~18 month old really wanted to bring with a little mini hockey stick (about 18 inches long) his GRANDFATHER had bought at that same state HS hockey tournament ~45 years before. So as he is tiny, and as this thing is 18 inches and weighs about 4 ounces I think nothing of it and stuff it in the diaper bag.

    So we get to security and they whisk the diaper bag through as normal, but then see the stick poking out an inch or two. They confiscate it and say we cannot bring it in because it is “too dangerous and could be used as a weapon”. I point out it is for a 18 month old not a high schooler, and that they generally sell much larger more robust versions of these inside every year anyway. They tell me they no longer sell them due to security concerns, but I can leave it with their security desk and they will give it back at the end of the two games.

    So we leave it at the desk along with a bunch of other people who are being forced to leave this and that. Wouldn’t you know when we go in they are still selling much longer and more robust mini sticks (maybe 30″ and 12 ounces) all over the place. So lie #1.

    The games end, and all these people go back to the security desk where we are told by a totally different group of security people that “they do not save anything and everything confiscated is throw away,everyone knows that, all the staff know that”. We point out that neither the staff who sent us over to the desk, nor the staff manning the desk previously said this. And that if it was going to be thrown away why not just put it in the garbages that are right there?

    And some of the things being held had high monetary (or in my case sentimental) value, would they really just throw away a backpack? They say “too bad, read the policy (ummm where?) it was all thrown away. We point out this is not what we were told.

    Later when complaining to management they even said to me “oh I think the staff probably just takes that stuff home”. WTF!?!

    TLDR: Stadium Security took my sons harmless toy because it was dangerous despite them selling big more dangerous versions of same thing inside, then told us we could get it back after leaving it at a desk, then told us afterwards when we came to claim that “all that was thrown away”.

  13. As you and other commenters have pointed out, it is almost impossible to rely on the last line of defense as a significant or successful defense to terrorist attacks and/or active shooters. That’s not to say there should be no security at all, but the security that is present should be highly targeted and likely focused less on mass screening and more on preparing appropriate responses if and when something happens to reduce casualties and speed recovery and providing emergency first aid.

  14. It’s a tough situation, the comments here are interesting. I appreciate this thoughtful corner of the interment!

  15. If you have some sort of a grievance, why not attack a government building, or something? I guess those are harder targets. The citizens should ask themselves, why that is. You (the government) brought these people in, and protected yourself from them, but left me to get blown to bits in some predictable semi-fabricated crisis.

    Surely these people will lose in the end. Because sure, murdering little girls at a concert, is going to terrorize people. But eventually, it is going to make them angry. Then your falafel will really be deep fried. But maybe I am giving the British men too much credit. Sure doesn’t look like they are ever going to do anything. How can they? You get thrown in prison in UK, just for not celebrating your own dispossession, with sufficient enthusiasm.

    “All the stories have been told, of Kings and days of old, but there’s no England now.”

    1. I work in a government building — one of the largest in Sacramento — and anyone can enter the lobby. Zero perimeter. Parts of the first floor are public space, and the public commonly goes onto the second level.

      A very soft target.

      The only real solution I can think of is to have many security lines pushed back a block from the entrances, with heavily-armed security. Think of scenes from “Zero Dark Thirty” here, but then ask yourself if this is really the kind of society we want. I sure don’t.

      The best way to avoid this in the case of arenas is to not build them downtown areas. You damned near need a moat around them to make them secure.

      1. The moat is not so far fetched:

  16. Nothing new to add, just a TIME story affirming a lot of what has been said.

    Why Preventing Terror Attacks Like Manchester Is So Difficult

    Whenever I go to a SF Giants game at PacBell/SBC/AT&T Park, I look at the mob at in Willie Mays Plaza (at the corner of a busy, open intersection) lining up to get in through security and hanging out waiting for seatmates and I think “this is a soft target if there ever was one.”

    I want to get inside out of the crowd as soon as I can.

    1. Yup. They have a metal detector there. They don’t work. I’ve inadvertently taken my pocket knife into AT&T. That’s not supposed to happen.

  17. What’s so hard to understand? Let Muslims in, you get terrorists acts: Paris, Brussels, Orlando, San Bernadino, WTC, Pentagon, FortnHood.

    1. Oklahoma City, Tyrifjorden, Sandy Hook, Charleston?

      If we’re going to profile people by common characteristics, there’s only one logical connection: Let men in, and you get terrorist acts.

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