Physical security and the 14 February terrorist attacks in Copenhagen

Copenhagen was shaken on 14 February 2015 when presumed perpetrator Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein (“presumed” because he was killed in a shootout before he could be questioned or tried) attacked two separate locations: Krudttønden, a cultural center in the Østerbro area where the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks participated in a public debate, and the Jewish synagogue in the city center where a Bar Mitzvah celebration was taking place. Two persons were shot to death and four others were wounded.

In this blog, we take a look at the attacks from the point of view of physical security experts – a perspective which, in our opinion, has been strangely lacking from the many debates and inquiries since the attacks.

Krudttønden: The risk was known

Lars Vilks has received death threats from al-Qaeda and has been attacked in Sweden, where he is under constant protection. PET, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, thus recommended the following security activities for him while in Denmark at the time of the attack:

  • Personal protection during his entire stay in Denmark
  • Access control of all guests at Krudttønden with a hand scanner
  • Presence of uniformed police at Krudtønden

After unsuccessfully trying to open a locked back door, the perpetrator moved to the front of the building and its glass entrance. He fired his weapon through the glass into the foyer from a distance of less than two meters. In the foyer were two Swedish bodyguards, two uniformed Danish bodyguards, one PET agent, a security coordinator and two bartenders. Amazingly, no one was killed during the attack through the glass. Two officers were hit by bullets; two others were wounded by broken glass.

Finn Nørgaard was not so lucky. A participant in the event, he was shot by the perpetrator when many guests fled the venue as shots were fired; he later died of his wounds. Within a few seconds of him being hit, other guests opened a fire exit near the front door, right in front of the perpetrator. Fortunately, they managed to slam the door shut before the perpetrator fired, and the perpetrator then fled on foot.

The Jewish Synagogue: Protected, but not enough to prevent a death

Later the same day, or, to be more precise, 40 minutes after midnight the following day, the same perpetrator attacked Copenhagen’s Jewish Synagogue.

The synagogue is located in Krystalgade in a historic area of old Copenhagen. A wrought iron fence separates the synagogue grounds from the street; in order to enter the grounds, guests must pass through two gates, each of which is operated separately to control access.

Despite heightened security around the synagogue after the attack the previous day, the perpetrator was able to walk up to the synagogue gate and fire on security personnel standing on the sidewalk outside the gate. Dan Uzan, a civilian security guard who had just passed through the gate and onto the street, was killed. Two uniformed police officers were wounded. The perpetrator fled on foot.

Was physical protection good enough?

Since the attacks in Copenhagen, public debate has centered on two main themes:

  1. How was a homegrown terrorist like Omar El-Hussein able to slip through the cracks of Denmark’s social welfare, criminal justice and security apparatuses despite numerous warning signs that he was capable of such an attack?
  2. Was protection at the Jewish synagogue good enough, and did police increase security there quickly enough after the Krudttønden attack?

We believe there is another issue that needs to be addressed: physical security of the locations that were attacked.

Let’s start with Krudttønden.

The tactical brief for security personnel at Krudttønden, recently released by the Danish government in the wake of the event, specifically mentioned the risk of an armed terrorist attack. Under the heading “Prevention”, the brief also recommended that security personnel seek protection from such attack “behind a wall or similar cover”.

Interestingly, primary access to Krudttønden is via a foyer which is comprised of glass panorama windows and a glass door. None of this glass was bullet proof, and no other walls around the entrance provide any kind of protection.

Thus, even though the venue’s entrance was made of regular commercial-grade glass, and even though the tactical brief pointed to the risk of an armed terrorist attack, the same brief recommended that security personnel seek cover behind a bullet-proof wall in case of attack.

We don’t want to suggest that the tragic loss of life at Krudttønden could have been prevented by bulletproof glass. It would not have. But we do believe a security evaluation of the venue should include more rigorous thinking on the physical security of the building’s perimeter, shell and cell.

There was no meaningful protection of Krudttøndens perimeter; the building is easily approachable by vehicle on several sides. As noted, the building’s shell around its foyer is commercial-grade glass which was easily breached by ballistic attack. We assume the building’s cells are similarly unprotected.

As far as we can see in the tactical security brief released by the government, these physical security aspects were not considered. While not every building or cultural center in a city like Copenhagen can or should be the object of enhanced physical security, perhaps venues for high-risk events should be? Or perhaps such events should be held in other locations?

As for the Jewish Synagogue, the case is different. The historic building’s perimeter is protected by a high wrought iron fence. The mantrap (access control gate) from Krystalgade to the synagogue grounds provides an extra layer of security. While none of this prevented tragic loss of life on the street in the early hours of 15 February, it no doubt has prevented other attacks in the past, and will continue to do so in the future.

(Photo credit: Kim Bach, originally found on Wikipedia and shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license)

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