Last October 2019, the U.K. Home Secretary set up a Public Inquiry to investigate the deaths of the victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena attack. Twenty two concert goers were killed and hundreds wounded and hundreds more severely traumatized by the Islamic terrorist attack that day. Inquiry hearings began in September 2020 and will continue into next year.
This week, testimony was made by Kyle Lawler, a security officer working the night of the Ariana Grande concert. His story is a tragic and compelling argument for how we must do security differently.
At the time of the attack, Mr. Lawler was 18 years old and making $5.50 an hour as a security officer. The suicide terrorist Salman Abedi was sitting near an exit from the Manchester Arena, wearing a very large backpack and dressed in clothing heavy for a hot summer night. He looked suspicious.
From Mr. Lawler’s statement:
“I just had a bad feeling about him … I felt something was wrong,” Lawler said adding that he felt “conflicted” because even though he “felt that he did not belong there” he “did not know why.”
“I did not want people to think that I was stereotyping him because of his race,” he said. “I was scared of being wrong and being branded a racist … I wanted to get it right and not to mess up by overreacting or judging someone by their race,” he said.
The terrorist saw Mr. Lawler watching him from about ten feet away and tried to avoid eye contact and “became fidgety.”
“I felt unsure about what to do. It’s very difficult to define a terrorist.”
Unable to reach other staff on his radio he began to “panic” because he was certain Abedi was “not [there] for a proper reason.”
Finally, he gave up trying to radio in his concerns to colleagues and left the area. Minutes later, the explosives were detonated. Mr. Lawler had initially told the police that he had left seconds and not minutes before the blast because he felt guilty for not having alerted people to the potential danger. “I had a lot of blame on myself,” he said.
Multiple issues were at play thwarting Mr. Lawler’s ability to help stop an attack and save lives which is after all the mandate of a security officer.
He claims it is difficult to define a terrorist. But terrorist methods of operation are known and should have been part of his training. On some level perhaps not fully conscious, he already knew that the young man presented a danger and that’s why he fled the area. He recognized that Ahmed was inappropriately dressed, that the backpack was completely out of place, he saw he was nervous and avoiding engagement. These are all behavioral indicators that point to a possible suicide terrorist attack.
Despite his youth and most likely limited training, Mr. Lawler’s instincts were spot on. We are all natural profilers who are evolutionarily designed to pick up danger cues, every one of us. Effective security takes that human inclination, adds knowledge of the adversary and assessment methods that combine into an effective security stance.
Had he been trained, he would have had the assurance, confidence and skills to act to save lives. He would have known how to engage the suspicious man and to clear the area of people until he and his team could assess that there was or was not a real threat.
As for racial profiling, it indeed has no good place in security procedures. It is the antithesis of predictive or proactive profiling where the indicators are not race or ethnicity but rather behavior. Had Mr. Lawler been trained in predictive profiling then he would have been able to assure himself that he was not acting out of racism. Political correctness, his fear of offending someone, would not have been an issue and would not have handicapped his mission to secure the Arena the arena that tragic night.