How Can Places of Worship Safeguard Themselves from Terrorist Attacks? By Yaniv Peretz

The deadly attack in Christchurch on 15h of March is the benchmark of terrorist related incidents, with the massacre being broadcast live on social media.

Targeting places of worship is not a new phenomenon and has been done in the past against synagogues, temples, mosques and churches alike. Recent examples are:

  • November 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue shooting which resulted in 11 deaths.
  • January 2019, Jolo church attack in Philippines which resulted in 20 deaths.
  • May 2018, Surabaya church bombings which resulted in 15 deaths.

Any place of worship is considered to be a “soft target” and valuable for various radical groups. Because of this, such places need to take proactive steps to address their security need, to minimize their vulnerabilities and most importantly protect their congregation. Religious leaders should understand that they are ultimately responsible for the protection of their congregation and should implement security measures in accordance to the risk level.

However, protecting places of worship poses unique challenges for a number of reasons:

Identification of attendees
Churches, synagogues and mosques usually advocate an open house policy, which means that all visitors are welcome to join any services provided. This results in mostly no security screening processes being in place, in order not to deter worshippers from participating.

Budget constraints

In most cases places of worship are self-funded and supported by members of the community through alms and donations. Implementing security measures in some cases can bear a significant cost, resulting in a lack of security measures.

Routine activity

The location, schedule and attendees in most places of worship run like clockwork, which enables an attacker to carry out an attack with detailed planning. that can result in higher chances of success.

What can places of worship do to step up security?

Even though there may be a lack of resources and funds for certain security measures, this cannot be an excuse to not have any measures in place. An effective security solution for places of worship can consist of involving their own communities to volunteer for security related tasks during certain events or important occasions.

What is important to note is that any security measures being implemented must firstly be relevant and secondly, be able to withstand the reality of any given emergency. This can be carried out more effectively by analysing specific threats in each location and the adversary’s ‘modus of operandi’ when dealing with the operation at hand.

The term ‘Security’ is a combination of several pillars namely Manpower, (Technology and Physical security), Processes, and Intelligence. One cannot be without the other, with a true security system being integrated with all these pillars. If we take an active shooter scenario for example, a security system firstly needs to deter the adversary from executing such an attack using the security measures in place. Secondly, the system needs to be able to detect in advance the potential threat before it reaches its target, so that the congregation can be alerted and the emergency procedure can be activated. The third step is to delay the aggressor if the attack has been initiated, in order to give enough time for emergency actions to be carried out, and finally, the fourth element is the response of security personnel by carrying out life-saving techniques and if possible, stopping the attacker. The response is a critical element as it has direct implications to the impact of the attack.

The Intelligence pillar is often not being addressed by private organizations, but with the rise of lone wolf attacks there is a growing demand to meet this need. Security systems can benefit greatly from proper Intelligence procedures which can assist organisations to pre-empt possible threats and deal with them proactively. A simple and cost-effective way to do this is by constantly monitoring social media feeds or online forums that can pose a possible threat to safety (e.g hate groups, threatening posts) and to alert the authorities of any suspicious activity.

A strong sense of community involvement and the sharing of relevant information proactively is a step in the right direction when it comes to beefing up security measures. This coupled with proper security processes that don’t require fancy and expensive equipment, are essential steps to take for any religious organisation to prevent a possible threatening situation from escalating, which can save more lives in the process.

Yaniv Peretz

Yaniv Peretz

Mr Peretz is a high skill security professional with over 19 years’ experience in security management with the focus on counter terrorism. His expertise allows him to share his knowledge in designing various training programmes and providing advice to critical infrastructures in South East Asia together with USA, Canada and Europe.