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Manchester stadium attack: holes in the perimeter?

NZ Security Magazine, June/July 2017

Manchester attack - a game-changer?Manchester attack - a game-changer?


In this exclusive interview with NZ Security, Auckland University specialist in organisational resilience and extreme threats and events, Dr Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor, considers what makes the Manchester stadium bombing different to previous terror attacks, and what makes it the same.


“They never checked bags at all, I never saw them check anybody's bags,” is what one mother who attended the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester told Sky News UK. Another woman who was at the concert stated that “there was almost no security check, rather zero. They let us get in without any check if we have anything with us.”

The popular consensus in the immediate aftermath of the Manchester stadium attack is that security was not up to scratch, and that there were significant gaps at the perimeter, particularly towards the closing stages of the concert, which would have made it relatively easy for a bomber to pass through and move into position.

Bridgette Sullivan-Taylor is an academic focusing on extreme events. Her experience includes working with the UK Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat to establish public-private partnerships in the context of extreme events such as terrorism, natural disasters, economic recessions and pandemics.


NZSM: What does this mean for public events in New Zealand?

BST: [The New Zealand Government] must be concerned that people are worrying about the British Lions tour. I think it’s interesting how they have taken immediate media commentary on it, so they’re obviously thinking that people will be worried whether there’s a threat or not.

It seems that people are drawing a link between what happened in the UK and here because of this tour. It just demonstrates again how linked in New Zealand is to the rest of the world.


NZSM: Is the Manchester attack different from what we’ve seen before?

BST: The difference with this one is that it’s a second city, it’s not really Paris or London, although in Marseilles we also saw an attack in a lower tier city albeit involving a truck driving into crowds. It’s non-London, a second city, and a soft target. As a stadium, it’s a very soft target, which demonstrates a hardened approach by the attackers.


NZSM: Is this a case of the authorities missing something that was glaringly obvious?

BST: They’re saying in the reports that the attacker was a person of interest that authorities were aware of. But this often the case; which is often reported on afterwards. But the fact is that authorities don’t necessarily know what those people are prepared to do or what they’re planning.

But in terms of protecting a stadium, how would you protect it? I understand there were reports that bag checks were very inconsistent. So, looking ahead, I think if you’re going to do it you’re just going to have to do it very thoroughly, like it’s done at airports.


NZSM: Does this come down to the fact that you simply can’t monitor and surveil everyone who comes onto the radar of law enforcement?

BST: It does raise the question of what one actually means when they’re talking about surveillance. Because even if the authorities are aware of them, I don’t know what they can watch and what they can do.

Even if they knew who these people are, they can’t necessarily arrest them or deport them without grounds just because they’re under the authorities’ gaze. Human right issues come into play here. In the UK, I understand that they have been watching people coming in from Syria, but I don’t know about Libya. In this case, the alleged perpetrator was born and bred in the UK and had only recently travelled to Libya.

If people in this part of the world go to places such as these, there’s no direct flight in and out, so they would be even more difficult for authorities to track.


NZSM: It’s been suggested that talk of the person having been on the radar is perhaps irrelevant when one considers that really the battle is about countering violent extremism, particularly on the internet. What are your thoughts on that?

BST: I don’t know what goes on here, but in the UK they’ve been monitoring everything. They’ve had graduates from MI5 and MI6 who are skilled in languages, particularly Arabic-related languages, chatting on the internet so they can monitor the chatter.

I know that at the universities staff had to be recording the attendance of students all the time because there had been instances of people posing as students whereas in actuality they weren’t. They just never turned up for classes, and were later found to be involved in these kind of activities.

So, we as lecturers had to hand in our rolls to the university, who in turn handed them to the immigration office.

In the UK they had to be seen to be doing a lot – and be reporting on it – because of this constant stream of threat activity. Here in New Zealand I just don’t know what the situation is because things aren’t very transparent.

Authorities here probably don’t have the same resources at their disposal as they do in the UK, because resource intensive responses are legitimised there. Here, anything to do with earthquakes is legitimised, but terror attacks not so much.

In India a few years ago, the English cricket team was staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel, and it was bombed, and it has been bombed beforew due to it iconic status, At that time, the British team were about to stay there, and as a result the British team now has its own security element.


NZSM: Do you think that this incident changes things at all.

BST: People are pretty horrified that it’s such a soft target and a second-tier setting, and the army has been deployed to assist police, which is relatively unheard of. I think that’s a bit of a game changer.


NZSM: A 23 May Kiwi blog post stated, “We are lucky that to date we live in a country where you don’t run the risk of being blown to pieces simply because you were on the wrong train or at the wrong concert.” How realistic is that?

BST: I think this is a game changer. I don’t think anybody going to some boppy girls concert would have seen the risk. People wouldn’t have expected it.

How do you protect stadiums as soft targets? A lot of these venues are privately owned or managed. I think businesses need to take the lead here because I don’t think the government is best placed to do it.


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