Protecting Sensitive Sites In A Changing World


In the wake of various terrorist attacks that have been carried out around the world in recent years, sensitive sites are facing a broader range of potential threats than ever before. These atrocities have been characterised by their unexpectedness and the difficulties involved in protecting against them. As a result, businesses are re-evaluating their defence systems in search of a complete security solution, but it is important not to ‘panic buy’.

Implementing a poorly thought out security strategy could put a site at even greater risk, especially if the existing system flaws that contributed to the recent devastation in Europe, the US and here in Australia are not considered.

So, how can security professionals and the businesses they serve remain protected in a new world? The key could lie in understanding what makes terrorism in the 21st century so difficult to combat.

The Changing Face of Terrorism

Recent attacks around the world have highlighted the risk of ‘lone wolf’ terrorism and have revealed holes in global security infrastructure as well as understanding of the threat itself. Countless examples spring to mind, including the 2016 attacks in Nice and Orlando, the 2017 Quebec City mosque shooting and the 2014 Lindt Café siege closer to home in Sydney. These shocking events represented a seismic shift in how targeted strikes are carried out, and are a world away from the highly strategised approach of organisations like Al Qaeda.

A report on the changing face of terrorism compiled by Aon breaks down many of the recent attacks and identifies two key groups of perpetrators, which provides a clue as to why traditional forms of security have struggled to cope with these strikes. These two sets of potential attackers are categorised as returning extremists and home-grown radicals.

Returning extremists typically arrive from a conflict zone and are more directly aligned with the strategies of groups such as Islamic State. These individuals are usually known to local intelligence agencies and they often have combat experience as well. Home-grown radicals, on the other hand, are young, heavily influenced by social media and have likely been influenced by extremist literature online. While they do not have the same training or expertise as returning extremists, they are far less visible to local authorities.

There are many differences between these two types of perpetrators, but what they have in common is the one characteristic that perhaps gives contemporary terrorism its greatest strength. This is the simple fact that these individuals operate alone, allowing them to be unpredictable and commit an attack anywhere, at any time. For this reason, they are known as lone wolves.

A New Threat, with New Intent

It is not just the perpetrators of terrorist attacks that have changed. With less operational power and a more off-the-cuff approach, focus has shifted away from the government and financial sectors towards easier targets such as businesses or venues in civilian areas. The Aon report identifies that, on a global scale, businesses are affected by terrorism twice per day, while the company’s Director of Business Development and Network Relations within Crisis Management, Scott Bolton, warns that civilians are now the primary target, with the goal of an attack being to create chaos, fear and anger.

“These new attacks are about terrorising a community and widening ethnic and religious divisions within the target country. Their aim is to attract and push further disaffected individuals to the cause, while deepening existing divides,” he summarised.

This perspective was echoed by former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer Jack Rice following the vehicle attack in Nice, “There was a time when attacks were taking place directly from the likes of ISIL or Al Qaeda and you could follow the link, you could see what they were doing and there was a command and control structure. What you’re seeing now frequently is attacks based on inspiration. The real problem is that it is almost impossible to stop an inspired attack that is low-tech. Because – where do you start?”

Securing Sensitive Sites in the 21st Century

The big terrorist attacks touched on in this article all have one thing in common. They may have occurred on opposite sides of the world, using different weapons, but they all were completely unexpected, at least for the targeted groups or locations. This unexpectedness is what makes a lone wolf so difficult to protect against, and the only real solution is to be aware of the potential threats and be constantly on guard to defend against them.

This approach has seen the security industry return to physical defence measures, moving away from electronics such as biometrics systems and digital security. Of course, the interconnected nature of modern technology means that the two are heavily intertwined anyway. The difference today is that security needs to serve multiple purposes in order to cover businesses from all manner of potential situations.

The success of modern security systems comes down largely to infrastructure and preparedness. Planning becomes essential, with the approach used at a specific site dictated by what goes on there, the surrounding environment, reaction capacity, potential damage and extent to which the flow of property and people can be controlled. In addition, systems need to meet certain certified protection standards and be maintained with a high level of service after installation.

Existing security measures that have worked in the past may need to be upgraded to meet these requirements, with Aon’s study concluding, “Employers should consider reviewing security and the training tools available to educate their people about active response. Without preparation, there remains the potential for liability and casualty claims in the event that the worst should happen.”

The InfoSec Institute reiterates this importance of planning when designing security, stating, “Without proper planning, there are chances that the implementation is doomed to fail. Buying padlocks, alarms and CCTV cameras without identifying the strategic locations and the barriers doesn’t solve the security issue.”

Deter, Delay and Defend

The resources used in a defence system should complement one another, providing multiple levels of security in the event of an attack on a specific site. The Gunnebo approach is to design a set of measures for existing infrastructure to prevent and counter threats, or to minimise consequences if an assailant succeeds in penetrating a site. This approach can be broken down into three key areas – deter, delay and defend.


Deterrence is the ideal solution, and it can prove especially effective when combating inexperienced lone wolves who may be more easily dissuaded by the obvious challenges of attacking a site. Deterrents can be physical (gates or barriers) or more psychological (video surveillance), but both serve a similar purpose in signifying that a site is protected.

A more extensive option is entrance control, with solutions that protect civilians and sites by regulating who can access the area. Different options will suit different locations, with speed gate turnstiles preferable for high-traffic areas, while higher risk sites may require airlocks or portals.


If deterrent measures do not work, the next step should be to make an attack as difficult as possible. This gives staff, civilians and assistance services more time to react, respond and escape. Once again, entrance control works well here, providing a barrier to entry for the attacker, or an emergency setting for safe evacuation.

Additional delaying options include everything from attack-resistant windows and doors through to crash barriers outside the perimeter. Security doors and partitions are also essential, as they provide additional obstacles for an attacker to overcome.


Finally, there are the critical measures needed to protect the most valuable assets. A common approach is often referred to as the security onion, with layers of protection circling inwards from the perimeter of a building. At the heart of this onion sits the most extensive defensive solutions – safes and vaults. There are all sorts of different options here, including safes that are fire resistant and vaults which can withstand explosives and diamond core drills. As with the other aspects of the protection trident, the level of security required will depend on the site.

These are unfamiliar times when it comes to securing high-risk sites from terrorist attacks. The dangers of a lone wolf are different to other threats, but by being prepared for any eventuality, it is still possible to design infrastructure capable of meeting the challenge. There may not be much that a business or site can do to resolve the problem of lone wolf attacks, but by taking steps to improve their systems and cooperating closely with law enforcement, it is certainly possible to minimise the potential impacts.

Laurie Mugridge
Laurie Mugridge is an expert in physical security, with more than 20 years’ experience in providing solutions to government, public and commercial buildings and sensitive sites around the globe.