7 ways to combat terrorism through better physical security in Scandinavia

Driven by the ever-changing threat levels over the last 15-20 years, Scandinavians – along with the rest of the world – have become accustomed to a broad range of security measures that previous generations could hardly imagine.

Air travellers now customarily remove their shoes, empty their pockets and water bottles – and even undergo full-body scans prior to boarding their flights. Sports fans are routinely scanned before they are allowed entrance to stadiums. And massive surveillance programs looking for potential or emerging threats scrutinize practically everything you do online, on telephones and on city streets.

The physical protection of buildings – and thus of the people within them – has, however, not reached the same level in Scandinavia as it has it countries such as the US and UK.

Physical protection not keeping up in Scandinavia

The political reactions to the recent “home-grown” terror attacks in France and Denmark indicate an unfortunate trend: the importance of physical protection of buildings to safeguard the people within takes a distant second place behind calls for more and better surveillance – even if this means curtailing civil liberties.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle were quick to deplore the terrorist events themselves. Agreement on what to do lessen their probability or mitigate their effect, however, is often less unanimous. As an anxious public awaits legislative action that can lessen the likelihood of such horrendous deeds occurring again, legislators default to beefing up the monitoring of emails and telephone calls, and to enhance other intelligence gathering. But they are slow to reach for another tool that could be more effective at a lower cost to both state budgets and civil liberties: improved physical protection.

As we discussed in our recent blogs on the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, physical security at two of the buildings attacked was woefully inadequate. Had this been better, the outcomes may also have been less lethal.

Can we learn from Paris…

In Paris, even though a security audit pointed to specific enhancements that would have made Charlie Hebdo’s office building considerably safer against the kind of attack that killed 8 people inside it, most of the recommended measures were either not followed or were implemented only half-heartedly.

Thus, a building that was demonstrably a high-risk target for numerous persons of interest was very poorly safeguarded. There was no perimeter protection. The recommended mantrap to improve shell security against intrusion was never installed. The security cameras that were installed at outside doors didn’t work properly.

…and Copenhagen?

In Copenhagen, the high threat level that surrounded Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks’s well-publicized trip to Denmark, ground zero of the “Mohammed Crisis” that roiled Islamist extremists around the globe, convinced Danish and Swedish intelligence authorities that Vilks should have 24-7 close protection in the form of bodyguards. They also required that guests at the public meeting in which Vilks participated be searched with a metal detector before entering the building, Krudttønden, a cultural center.

As far as we know, however, they thought nothing of allowing such a high-profile, high-risk event to take place in a building with a glass façade. As it happened, the perpetrator fired 28 shots through the glass façade into a foyer that contained police, security personnel and café staff and guests. Miraculously, although several were wounded, no one was killed.

Scandinavia is not keeping up

Given the state of their physical security and the known risks, were buildings such as Krudttønden in Copenhagen and the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris suitably protected? In a word, no.

The physical security of at-risk buildings in much of Scandinavia lags behind that in the US and the UK, where physical security plays a more prominent role in the overall protective and preventive context. Many critical buildings in Scandinavia are more vulnerable to attack than they need to be. And available solutions need not have exorbitant costs in terms of either national budgets or civil liberties.

A call to action: 7 things Scandinavian legislators should do to protect people and buildings against terrorism

We do not expect Scandinavian legislators to rethink everything they know relative to anti-terrorism based on a few recent incidents.

We do suggest, however, that lawmakers and security decision makers in both the public and private sectors add a better understanding of physical security to their anti-terrorism toolbox.


  1. The physical security of infrastructure and buildings that are at-risk, prominent or critical should be an integrated part of any security audit related to terrorism.
  2. This audit should be prepared by qualified, experienced organizations with expert insight into physical protection. As a minimum, the audit should include risk analysis to understand the level of threat, vulnerability analysis to understand how and where physical security can be breached, and a consequence analysis to understand the probable consequences of such breaches.
  3. The audit should also be based on the three pillars of physical protection—a building’s perimeter, shell and cell—and how they work together.
  4. Stakeholders, including security officials and lawmakers, should understand that the physical protection of buildings is more of a balancing act than a zero-sum game. Inherent risks can be mitigated but not always completely eliminated. Informed acceptance of residual risks —those that remain even after mitigation—is a critical understanding that casts physical security in a very different light than, for example, legislation regarding buildings and energy use. The “right” solutions strike a conscious balance between enhanced physical protection, aesthetics, usability and budget frames– to mention just a few of the many relevant parameters.
  5. The results of a security audit, including recommendations regarding improvements of a building’s physical security, should have consequences: if a building is deemed unsuitable for high-profile, at risk activities, then the building’s physical security should be improved to mitigate risk, or the activities should be moved to a more secure location.
  6. Like so many other things, the sooner terror-proofing is considered in the building or renovation processes, the cheaper, more effective and more aesthetically pleasing it can be integrated. That’s why we recommend that relevant building projects include physical protection evaluations in the initiative phase of the building and construction process.
  7. Lawmakers should consider how to introduce legislation that would change the current lack of physical protection regulations. While most of Scandinavia has some of the world’s strictest laws regarding buildings, fire and energy, Denmark, for example, has no laws stipulating as much as a lock on a front door for any building.

Safe buildings don’t need to be ugly buildings

Measures to improve physical security of important building do not have to make new or historically significant buildings look bad. There are many solutions that allow designers to maintain aesthetics while improving protection. In typical Scandinavian style, the tried and true form-meets-function design approach can go a long way to making an aesthetic virtue out of protective necessity.

Similarly, protection does not always have to be permanent. For example, the UK has established a common pool of bollards, protective screens, bullet-proof shields, etc., from which security and law enforcement officials can borrow in order to beef up security temporarily. Many of these were used during the 2012 Olympics, and are now available nationwide for other purposes.

We think it’s time that the Scandinavian countries add better physical security legislation to the ongoing effort to combat terrorism. It can be done at a fraction of the cost of other measures. It can balance the mitigation of risk with budgetary and aesthetic considerations. And it can save lives.

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