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Trends In Terrorist Threats Against Sports Stadiums And Arenas

By Dr. Joshua Sinai

The significant increase in plots and attacks by Islamist terrorist groups (including lone wolves) against Western targets, whether in the U.S. or overseas, include intentionally targeting the large crowds that fill sports stadiums and arenas (SSAs). This was particularly the case on November 13, 2015 when an ISIS-affiliated suicide bomber attempted to enter the national soccer stadium in Paris, which was packed with a capacity crowd of 80,000 spectators (including the country's prime minister), to detonate his explosive belt inside the stadium in order to cause mass fatalities and a deadly stampede out of the stadium. While the attacker was stopped when a security guard discovered his suicide vest while searching him at the entrance, he still succeeded in detonating his bomb as he backed away from the security guard, blowing himself up together with a security guard. Demonstrating how such an attack can be part of a larger series of simultaneous attacks, as part of the overall operation that targeted four other sites, a second ISIS team attacked the Bataclan theater, located in another Paris district, with their continuous shootings killing 89 people, with several hundred others injured at the concert hall.

The outdoor national soccer stadium and the enclosed Bataclan theater were intentionally selected, as have other similar venues in the past, because attacking their massively concentrated crowds would result in large scale deaths and injuries, extensive publicity for the terrorists' cause and brutality, economic damage to the affected municipality, including to other business sectors such as tourism and retail, as well as a significant disruption to the regular operation of such iconic facilities. In addition to the direct impacts of these incidents, secondary impacts also affect larger audiences beyond the localized incident. For example, one of an attack's psychological impact is to spread fear and anxiety throughout the targeted society, as well as in influencing future SSA customer behaviors, such as resulting in substantially reduced attendance at future events or holding such events at other facilities.

In another example of how violence affects SSAs, the outbreak of race riots in Baltimore, Maryland, near Camden Yards, in April 2015, forced the baseball game scheduled at the stadium on April 29 to be played before an empty stadium. This was the first time in Major League Baseball history that a game had been played without a crowd of fans in attendance out of concern that the racial riots might spill over to the stadium.

Although this is considered more an active shooter attack than a terrorist incident, and the venue was a movie theater and not an enclosed sports arena, James Holmes' July 20, 2012 opening fire at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises," in which he killed 12 people and wounded 58 others, is an example of how public safety officers at sports stadiums and arenas need to be aware that such incidents may occur at their facilities, as well.

This article, therefore, focuses primarily on the threats presented by terrorists - and, possibly, by active shooters, as well - but not another important component of violent outbreaks in sports stadiums and arenas in the form of spectator violence that might be due to public intoxication, a team's supporters angrily disputing a referee's judgment calls, or other game-related provocations, all of which require different sets of crowd control measures.

As will be discussed in this article's second part, to mitigate and deter potential large-scale future disruption to such significant crowded facilities, with some, such as Yankee Stadium, in New York City, considered iconic national symbols, it is essential for their security departments to effectively manage the risk to their facilities by hardening them against potential terrorist attacks (as well as active shooter attacks).

Scope of the Target Set

A stadium is defined as a large and usually open structure that is used for sports events, with tiered seating for spectators. An arena is an enclosed facility, with its interior usually surrounded by seats on all sides, in which sports events and also concerts and other events, such as conference expositions, take place. A few large stadiums, such as AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and Ford Field, in Detroit, Michigan, also have retractable roofs.

In the United States, it is estimated that there are more than 1,300 sports stadiums and arenas, which are located in every state and municipality. Within this larger set, there are more than 220 sports stadiums with a capacity of at least 20,000 spectators, with most used for events such as professional and college football, baseball, and soccer. There are more than 120 enclosed sports arenas with a capacity of more than 10,000 spectators, with most housing basketball, ice hockey and arena football teams, while also serving as indoor venues for music concerts and other events, such as conference expositions.

In another category of a sport facility, marathon running events are also targeted by terrorist adversaries. This was the case in mid-April 2013, when the Tsarnaev brothers detonated their bombs along the route, near the finish line. For security personnel, therefore, a marathon's route, for example, along a city's streets, would be considered as a type of stadium to be continuously protected.

Significant Incidents of Terrorist Attacks Against Sports Stadiums and Arenas

As demonstrated by the listing of significant attacks against sport stadiums and arenas, such facilities have been targeted by a spectrum of terrorist groups, whether Palestinian, White Supremacist, Tamil, or Jihadist. These have included the following attacks:

• September 5, 1972: five members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine members of the Israeli team hostage at the Olympic Village, killing them, including a German policeman, with the Palestinian terrorists also killed.

• July 27, 1996: Eric Rudolph, a White Supremacist, detonated a bomb at the Atlanta Olympic Games, killing two people and injuring 120.

• April 5, 1997: The Grand National horse race in the U.K. was evacuated by some 60,000 spectators, jockeys, race personnel and local residents after two coded bomb threats were received from the IRA.

• May 1, 2002: Operatives belonging to the Basque separatist group E.T.A. detonated a car bomb close to the Bernabau Stadium, Madrid's main stadium, hours before the start of Real Madrid's Champions League semi-final against arch rivals Barcelona. The blast injured 17 people.

• October 2005: an Oklahoma student prematurely detonated a bomb strapped to his body outside a football stadium packed with 84,000.

• October 2006: The Department of Homeland Security sent an advisory to the National Football League and other officials advising of a possible, uncorroborated threat to launch a dirty bomb attack against seven NFL stadiums in Miami, New York, Atlanta, Seattle, Houston, Oakland and Cleveland. The threat, posted on a Web site, alleged that the dirty bombs would be delivered by truck.

• April 6, 2008: A Tamil Tiger suicide bomber detonated a device at the start of a marathon celebrating the start of Sri Lanka's New Year, killing 15 athletes, and some 90 others were injured.

• March 3, 2009: While en route to a match against Pakistan, the Sri Lankan cricket team bus was attacked by rockets, grenades, while multiple rounds of ammunition were fired by 12 masked gunmen belonging to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi outside a stadium in Lahore. Eight people were killed - six policemen and two civilians, with nine people injured (six players, two staff members and an umpire).

• July 11, 2010: In successive attacks, two al-Shabaab suicide bombers detonated explosives in crowds of people viewing the World Cup on outdoor screens in Kampala, Uganda, killing 75 people and wounding 70 others.

• April 15, 2013: Two Chechen American brothers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, detonated two pressure cooker bombs along near the Boston Marathon's finish line on Boylston Street, killing three people and injuring an estimated 264 others.

• April 29, 2015: Racial riots in downtown Baltimore, MD, near Camden Yards, forced the baseball game scheduled at the stadium to be played before an empty stadium.

• November 13, 2015: In a series of simultaneous attacks by ISIS terrorists against the packed national football stadium in Paris, with a crowd of 80,000 spectators, a suicide bomber killed himself and a security guard outside the stadium, while another team attacked the Bataclan theater where a rock concert was in progress, killing 89 people, and injuring several hundred others.

Why Specific Types of Terrorists Seek to Attack Sports Stadiums and Arenas

As demonstrated by these attack incidents, terrorist groups from a diversity of ideological types, have a long history of attacking sports stadiums and arenas. In the case of Islamist terrorists, who are especially active during the current period, they are influenced by on-line publications such as Inspire magazine, which is published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Reportedly, the Tsarnaev brothers who had bombed the Boston Marathon in April 2013, had learned to build their improvised explosive devices from the first issue of Inspire, which was published in June 2010, and featured an article titled "Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom." The magazine's 12th issue, published in Spring 2014, included an article titled "Car Bomb - Field Data," that listed as specific targets for attacks upcoming sporting events such as "Tennis stadiums; they are visited by thousands of people, and high profile people, especially the U.S. Open."

A Risk Management Strategy to Upgrade SSAs Security Posture

The objective of this section is to present a risk management strategy based on what are considered best practices in security management. Risk for a sports stadium and arena is defined as the likelihood of a threat that can adversely affect their mission, personnel and facilities.(1) It is based on conducting an analysis of three components of risk management: threat assessment, vulnerability assessment, and consequence assessment in order to derive an overall risk score that can be used to assess any strengths and weaknesses that may characterize a facility's security posture against which any additional preventative resources can be prioritized to address such shortfalls.

Threat Assessment

In the context of sports stadiums and arenas, a threat assessment is defined as a systematic effort to identify and examine the nature of existing or potential terrorist (or active shooter threats shooter) threats against such entities and their assets.(2) Threat assessments are generally strategic or tactical in nature. While strategic assessments focus on a terrorist adversary's general intentions and capabilities to attack a sport's stadium's or arena's facilities, personnel (including the playing athletes) and crowds, tactical assessments focus on the adversary's likely activities and operations to conduct an attack, including the types of weapons to be used and the attack's date and timing.(3) Since a facility's security department is inherently constrained in the types of intelligence activities it is permitted to conduct as a private entity, it is highly dependent for such tactical intelligence, when a warning is issued, on its cooperation with local and national law enforcement agencies, as well as its country's intelligence agencies. Finally, strategic and tactical threat assessments need to be continuously updated and revised to reflect the changing threat environment facing a sports stadium or arena, especially if it is located in a geographical location that is being targeted by a terrorist group.

About the Author

Dr. Joshua Sinai is a Principal Analyst at Kiernan Group Holdings (KGH) (, in Alexandria, VA. KGH is a leading practitioner oriented firm in conducting threat, vulnerability, and consequence assessments for government and private sector clients in homeland security. Dr. Sinai can be contacted at: References: Thomas L. Norman, Risk Analysis and Security Countermeasure Selection [Second Edition] (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2016)


This is only a partial version of the article published in the latest Journal of Counterterrorism & Homeland Security Int'l.
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