The Boston Marathon bombings, horrific and tragic as they were, should not have come as a huge surprise to people who have made preparing for terrorism their business. Ever since 9/11, officials have periodically warned that an attack might come at some large sporting event.
This 2006 FBI alert (click here to read account) warned of a possible suicide bomber attacking some event, although the alert wasn’t specific. It referenced an Internet posting on an extremist message board. An ABC news report said:
“The posting recommended, according to the FBI, that one suicide bomber detonate inside the stadium and the others detonate at exit gates as spectators were fleeing.
‘The combined explosions would create a panic that would kill far more spectators than the bombing alone,’ the FBI quotes the message as saying.”
That attack never took place.
Two years ago, NBC News reported on a nine-page threat assessment for the 2011 Super Bowl, drawn up by counterterrorism officials and local law enforcement. The NFL was spending $6 million on security for the game, with Homeland Security adding much more, which apparently has been typical for the annual contest.
The threat assessment said there was no specific threat against the game, but it noted recent al Qaida attacks against sporting events in Iraq and Uganda. Of course, nothing happened at the 2011 game, or at either of the next two. That doesn’t mean officials were taking anything for granted.
In Salt Lake City, where this blog is written, the 2002 Winter Olympics posed a real security challenge. Held a mere five months after 9/11, the games were the first major worldwide sporting event to test a new level of preparedness.
I remember briefly speaking with Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington a few weeks after 9/11 and asking his opinion on whether the Salt Lake games should be canceled. He said they shouldn’t, and gave me a lecture on the history of the ancient Greek games as a time of truce allowing athletes to travel freely despite war tensions.
The biggest terrorist attack against a worldwide sporting event came in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists murdered 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team at the Munich Olympics. But that was a very specific attack, not at all in the mold of current terrorist attacks that target people generally and indiscriminately.
The Boston Marathon was not the Super Bowl or the Olympics. Its very participants were regular people, other than a small group of elite runners. Although these people had to post qualifying times at other marathons in order to compete, most of them are otherwise not considered athletes. The bombs were timed about four hours after the start of the race, meaning they were meant to hit runners with the most unremarkable times, and their supporters.
Check the Internet. You’ll find a lot of scholarly studies on terrorism threats, sporting events and preparedness. Sports unite communities and generally provide joy. They are natural targets for people who want to demoralize the nation as they spread mayhem and death. If you’ve been to an NBA game or other big event lately, you have had to pass through a metal detector and had your bags checked. Look for things to get tighter from now on.
We don’t know yet who was behind the bombings in Boston. But something tells me officials are going to treat security at sporting events even more seriously now.