Deterring Terror by Design: The New Front Lines for Homeland Security are in the Private Sector

Dec. 5, 2007
The U.S. government issues more "non-credible" terror alerts for shopping malls during the holiday season and proposes steep Homeland Security budget cuts while British Terrorism Minister Lord Alan West and Member of Parliament Patrick Mercer suggest that architectural education should include a module dedicated to understanding how terrorists can be deterred by design.

It will come as no surprise to most Americans that, since 9/11, every major large-scale event, from the Super Bowl to the holiday season (when shopping at the local mall becomes a competitive sport), is often accompanied by a terrorist threat warning from the U.S. federal government. These warnings are often issued with caveats explaining the sources or threats themselves are of questionable credibility, but are being distributed due to the nature of the information. Al Qaeda has stated that they intend to attack the U.S. and American interests.

Such intelligence gathering may include information gleaned from websites and postings, second- and third-hand information from unnamed individuals in faraway places, or interceptions of communications. The public may never know how this information bubbles up through the intelligence community to reach the media, but the public does need to know if it's credible. The average American is in no position to ascertain if and when federal officials are issuing threat warnings to instill fear; buttress arguments for a war on terror; disseminate disinformation for foreign consumption; support political candidates, parties, and positions; or if the warnings have real merit to them. These judgment calls will be left to the historians, journalists, politicians, and former officials who write books about what happened under their watch.

Nevertheless, the consequences of issuing dire warnings on a regular basis are of concern because of the tremendous implications these threats pose to public safety, disaster planning, and public and private financing of precautionary counterterrorism measures. This is especially true for local law-enforcement agencies and those building owners, landlords, tenants, facility managers, and design professionals who are responsible for protecting certain at-risk building types and other potential targets.

During July 2007, media reports and statements by high-ranking U.S. government officials described gut feelings about pending summer terrorist attacks and the likelihood that such attacks would destroy iconic tall buildings in five major American cities, creating mass casualties. There were no attacks of this nature in the United States during that time. The public wasn't informed about whether these alerts were based on new intelligence or were rehashing old information long in the public realm; nor were any precautionary steps offered in the media advising building owners, tenants, medical trauma centers, or private citizens about what they might do to protect themselves, their properties, and assets before or after such a catastrophe.

Seasonal Terrorist Tidings
In November 2007, more terrorism warning stories appeared in the media, leaving Americans wondering if these statements were more unsubstantiated gut feelings, politically motivated statements timed for the 2008 presidential primary season, or legitimate concerns based on intelligence.

According to a Nov. 8, 2007, story on the Blotter at (, the FBI warned that Al Qaeda may be preparing a series of holiday attacks on U.S. shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago, based on intelligence received by the FBI in late September. The alert claimed the goal of the terrorist group is "to disrupt the U.S. economy and has been planning the attack for the past 2 years." As with other FBI and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) terrorist alerts coming out at holiday season since 2001, the credibility of the threat, and the sources, remains questionable. Government officials acknowledge the alert came to them "through a lengthy chain of contacts" and that "there is no information to state this is a credible threat."

Shopping malls may be considered soft targets (not hardened against terrorism as other iconic structures, such as national landmarks and U.S. federal buildings). Other countries, such as Israel and the U.K., have experienced terror attacks to commercial buildings and shopping centers; however, most mall property owners and managers have dealt with security at one level or another for years, and these warnings may have prompted them to revisit their security programs and operations.

On Nov. 16, 2007, the Blotter reported that DHS had issued a "low-credibility" threat to malls and Jewish schools in New York, based on information that someone in France is teaching young men to use explosives and encouraging such attacks. The DHS bulletin added that the threat was "non-credible" and the source, possibly in Argentina, probably provided the added information "to create additional hysteria on the heels of last week's media coverage of a threat to malls in Chicago and Los Angeles."

Jewish schools and institutions, especially in New York, routinely deal with security threats year round, and many have implemented comprehensive programs, such as those developed by the Anti-Defamation League's Security Awareness program (, in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies.

British Government to Increase Building Security
In London, government officials are reviewing additional building security measures at airports, rail stations, shopping malls, and major public spaces. ABC News reported on Nov. 14, 2007, that Prime Minister Gordon Brown plans to install new blast barriers at 250 train terminals and that "thousands of movie theaters, shopping malls, hospitals, and schools will be advised on how to protect the public from bombs."

To date, it appears the U.S. federal government has not advised owners and landlords of privately owned urban civic facilities on how to protect the public from bombs (despite dire warnings about mass casualties). Local law-enforcement agencies in major cities, however, often work closely with owners, operators, and tenants of high-risk sites, facilities, and critical infrastructure.

British Terrorism Minister Alan West, former head of navy and defense intelligence, is leading a security review of nearly 900 public spaces after the June 2007 failed attacks in the London entertainment district and the Glasgow airport. To his credit on tackling this complex issue, Lord West has met with architects and security experts to discuss design of new public buildings, including stadiums and arenas, to reduce the impact of shrapnel and explosions.

According to Lord West, "there have been 16 major plots to create mass casualties in the U.K. since 2000. One was successful, three failed, and 12 were foiled by security services."

In the 1990s, London built the so-called Ring of Steel around the financial district, providing a network of barriers, closed-circuit television cameras, and other technology innovations to enhance security. These measures subsequently proved effective in tracking down suspects and perpetrators involved in the Glasgow incident, sources have told

Member of Parliament Mercer: Add Security Design to Architectural School Curriculum
Subsequently, according to Building Design, (, on Nov. 16, 2007, a report published by security minister Lord West identified train stations, nightclubs, and theaters as building types that will require anti-terror measures in place.

Most significantly, Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Mercer, who helped write the security report, said, "There is some of this [type of training] in architectural schools at the moment, but more can and should be done." The report also suggests architectural education should include a module dedicated to "understanding how terrorists can be deterred by design."

Kudos to MP Mercer for further advocating that "additional training for architects would ensure that safe design was also high-quality design."

Such a security module, or academic course, could cover more than deterring terrorism. content could also address how design solutions can be employed to reduce crime, such as with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) strategies; minimizing building damage from high winds, hurricanes, and natural disasters; and the use of landscape architecture, site planning, engineering, materials, and technology to create safer facilities. These elements are components of transparent security, invisible to the public eye. They provide opportunities for design excellence and represent different aspects of security other than installing concrete jersey barriers, bollards, and visible items. Deterring terror through design solutions early in a project is cost effective in the long run.

The post-9/11 global environment has placed new demands on architects, engineers, and the building industry, especially regarding security and sustainability needs. Practitioners and building owners recognize this. Continuing education seminars for maintaining architectural licensure in most U.S. states welcome programs on security, as it falls directly under the category of "protecting public health, safety, and welfare." Architectural students, emerging architects, and young design professionals should be exposed to the basic concepts of security planning and design early in their careers so that they will be better prepared to educate the design professions and protect the public. Nevertheless, most U.S. schools of architecture have not formally addressed security design in their degree programs.

Some academics believe that, unless security design is included in the Architectural Registration Exam (ARE), architectural schools have no real incentive to cover security in accredited architectural degree programs. Besides, they say, the older professors and younger instructors are not trained in security design because it is a post-9/11 emerging area of expertise, and there is only so much design and technical material that can be covered in the bachelors or masters of architecture curriculum.

MP Mercer may well be successful in getting British schools of architecture to develop a module on security design as a required or optional course of study. The British government is making the case that this issue is vital to national security and protecting the public, based on previous events and ongoing counterterrorism intelligence.

While others in Britain are understandably concerned about creating a fortress-style country with the additional security measures that may be proposed, the effective use of transparent security and advancing design excellence will go a long way to allay these concerns.

Building security, like the global movement on sustainability, which is being widely taught in architectural schools, is an opportunity to develop new materials and creative design solutions for addressing emerging, 21st-century challenges. The U.S. General Services Administration has completed many award-winning federal buildings that reflect the highest standards of design excellence and federal security requirements. There are many other international civic and private-sector buildings, such as World Trade Center 7 in New York that can serve as case studies.

Issuing ongoing terrorist alerts about threats to American buildings has become a regular part of Homeland Security public information and policy, and may be a sign of the times for the foreseeable future. The building industry, along with schools of architecture, architectural school accrediting boards, and state licensing boards, must be realistic about the fundamental need to educate tomorrow's architects and protect the public from terrorism and disasters.

The Increasing Role of the Private Sector
In early December 2007, the U.S. government announced that severe budget cuts are planned for Homeland Security grants and funding to states, despite the ongoing security alerts to major cities. Congress has vowed to fight the cuts. The terrorist threats and risks have not subsided - only the federal government's interest in providing grants for counterterrorism measures in cities and facilities that need it most.

If this trend continues, the burden for protecting the public will increasingly fall to the private sector and, to some extent, local governments. Ultimately, the public and the taxpayers will cover these expenses in some way, through higher prices, higher taxes, reduced services, or a combination of all three. Integrating security planning early on in the design and construction process rather than as an afterthought during renovations and retrofits, or after a major catastrophe, is the preferable and more cost-effective approach.

One of the best ways to achieve this goal is by educating and training design professionals about security design early in their careers, such as in accredited architectural degree programs that are supported by the ARE and state licensure requirements.

Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA, principal of Barbara Nadel Architect in New York City, may be reached at ([email protected]).

Internet Resources

U.S. Architectural Organizations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Buildings, create an account today!

Sponsored Recommendations