Security issue: Mass killing

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Ambulances on the street after the 2005 London Bombings

Mass killing is the crime of purposely causing harm or death to a group of (unknown) people to make a statement or to influence the public opinion. This threat is exerted out of willful action by fanatics: terrorists or criminal activists.


The target of fanatics can be persons, objects, or both. This category of security issue focusses on the threat directed towards people. When directed at objects, it falls under the category of destruction by fanatics.

The motives for mass killing by fanatics can mostly be found in the amount of attention it yields. This motive gives a very good clue of who and what locations might be potential targets for fanatics: not only should an attack yield a fair amount of attention, it should also be the kind of attention aiding the fanatics' cause. Depending on the fanatics faction, this can entail a wide variety of reactions; for some factions, negative attention is not unwanted. We see this in the 11 September 2001 attack on the New York Trade Center. Although this generated almost uniformly negative responses in the western world, this was received with joy by the responsible faction (al-Qaeda).

The roots of terrorism can also be found in certain poor or unfavourable conditions such as relative economic deprivation (manifested in poverty, income inequality, etc.), socio-economic change (fostered by the process of for example modernisation) and economic and political integration[1]. (The roots of) crime is closely related to poverty, social exclusion, wage and income inequality, cultural and family background, level of education and other economic and social factors[2].

Contributing circumstances

Known circumstances to influence the likelihood or effect of mass killing are presented in the table below:

Contributing Circumstance Influence Description
Presence of crowds or busy places. Increases attractiveness As the object of mass killing is to kill or injure as many people as possible, places where many people gather form an attractive target. The predictability of crowds adds to the attractiveness.
Presence of prominent objects and/or ideological associations. Increases attractiveness For an attack to have the desired effect (in the eyes of terrorists), it needs to attract wide attention and be associated with their 'cause'. Prominent objects will assure attention, objects which can be associated to their ideological beliefs will assure the 'right' message will be carried. One should realise that what constitutes a prominent or ideologically attractive object should be assessed from the viewpoint of the fanatic and these can either be very specific or general.
Presence of safety threats that could be misused. Increases attractiveness Sometimes, an object is used as a force multiplier for an attack directed at people. This can be used on urban objects if:
  • the object can be potentially harmful to humans (such as chemical plants, oil/gas refineries and storages, nuclear plants, etcetera)
  • the object provides an essential service to the well-being of humans and belongs to the critical infrastructure. In this case, its failure can bring harm to the people.

The presence of such an object in the vicinity of large groups of people can raise the attractiveness and attainability for an attack by fanatics and therefore increase the risk.

Lack of surveillance and attention. Decreases risk of detection. A low level of surveillance or attention, decreases the risk of detection (particularly in the preparation phase of an attack) for a perpetrator and thereby increases the attractiveness.
Long reaction times or inadequate action of intervention force. Decreases likelihood of apprehension Untimely or inappropriate reactions to violence lead to a perception of little control, which will increase perceived risk for the public and decrease perceived risk for the perpetrators.


Social impact

Mass killing often results in psychological trauma of victims, bystanders, and society as a whole. It may also result in a general perception of insecurity. Both these results can decrease the level of societal resilience.

Economic impact

The effects of mass killing in terms of economic consequences are complex. Terrorist events and violent crime not only lead to material and immaterial costs for those who have become victimised, but also forces local and national authorities to spend billions on the prevention of terrorism and the detection, prosecution and punishment of terrorists (the primary economic impact of terrorism).

The material costs (e.g. loss of productivity) and immaterial costs (e.g. suffering, pain, sorrow, and loss of enjoyment of life) of mass killing events are generally expressed in terms of the value per statistical life (VSL). "The value per statistical life represents an individual’s willingness to exchange income or wealth for small changes in the likelihood of survival, rather than purchasing other goods or services"[3]. The VSL ranges from € 1.4 million to € 2.1 million (2009 prices) in the EU[4]. However, according to a specialists Robinson et al. (2010)[5] “terrorism-related risks may be perceived as more dreaded and ambiguous, and less controllable and voluntary, than the workplace risks underlying many VSL estimates”. “These factors may increase the VSL appropriate for terrorism risks, possibly doubling the value”[5].

In addition to the primary economic impacts, terrorism and violent crime cause the disruption of economic entities, which have not been direct targets of the attack (the secondary economic impacts of terrorism)[6]. Security measures can prevent destruction by fanatics, but not without costs. Access control or screening, for example, is costly and there is always the risk of terrorist displacement[7]. With the help of economic tools such as social cost-benefit analysis it is possible to overview the costs and future benefits of security measures in order to decide which types of measures are best suited for a specific urban planning situation.

Mobility impact

Mobility effects of mass killing can be seperated into the direct effect of the mass killing and the effects of preventive measures (airport checks, etc.). Since a mass killing has a very low frequency of occurance, the direct effect is of less importance here than the effects of preventive measures. An example of a direct mobility effect is when the mass killing involves the mobility system, such as with train or metro bombings. The mass killing then paralyzes the normal functioning of the mobility system.

Preventive mobility measures for mass killing deal with controlling who enters a certain area or building, by controlling the accessibility and access and egress, the entry or exit to an urban object. In addition to this, suspicious driver/travelling behaviour can be detected from camera or police surveillance. For example, to detect a suspicious person on a public space who could cause mass killing (e.g. by suicide).

One of the mobility effects of airport checks is that travel times (from home to boarding the airplane) are increased. As the time of the security checks (due to different lengths of the waiting in queues) are ususally unknown before starting the trip, estimated travel time with heavy airport checks is less reliabe. Both effects (longer travel time and lower travel time reliability) imply that people should allow for longer travel time. This leads to higher (economic) costs, since time represents a certain value (Value of Time [1]).

Safety impact

A successful mass killing attack can do massive physical and/or bodily damage. The collateral damages from an attack can sometimes be so high that they weaken structures and unsafe situation arise. However, compared to the direct effects of a successful attack, these risks are usually minor.


  • Target hardening can be done by making it harder to take weapons of mass destruction to a vulnerable location, e.g. by separating traffic flows so car bombs cannot come close to masses of people, or by separating locations where such weapons might possibly come from masses of people by hardened obstacles, reducing the effect of the weapon. For support on construction methods and materials that mitigate explosion effects and structural collapse one can use the VITRUV VITRUV logo.png Plan level tools and Detail level tools. With the Detail level tool one can also assess secondary costs for mobility impacts, for example if a street or rails is destroyed.
  • Access control, combined with directing traffic flows can be used to assure all traffic entering and exiting a location passes at certain, predestined points. This allows for all traffic to be monitored (Surveillance) or even screened (see below).
  • Surveillance can help to detect suspicious activities, like left luggage or groups of people monitoring the situation (in a preparation phase of the attack).
  • Intervention forces can be used to act when suspicious activities have been detected. These intervention forces range from normal guards, who can investigate the seriousness of reports made by the public to bomb squads.
  • Screening can be used to test a flow of traffic for suspicious signs. This can include metal detectors, trained personnel looking for people carrying suspicious luggage, random body searches, etcetera. The gravity of the measures taken should always be in balance with the threat and the nature of the location.
  • Target removal can be done by designing an area to be free of concentrations of people or by reducing the predictability of concentrations of people.

Footnotes and references

  1. Schneider, F., T. Brück, and Karaisl, M. (2008). A survey of the Economics of Security. Economics of Security Working Paper 1.
  2. Buananno, P. (2003). The Socioeconomic Determinantes of Crime. A Review of the Literature. Working Paper Series, No.63. University of Milan.
  3. Source: Robinson, L.A., J.K. Hammitty, J.E. Aldyz and A.K.J. Baxteryy (2010): Valuing the Risk of Death from Terrorist Attacks. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Vol.7, Issue 1, Article 14.
  4. Jost, G., Allsop, R., Steriu, M. & Popolizio, M. (2011): 2010 Road safety target outcome: 100,000 fewer deaths since 2001. 5th Road Safety PIN Report. European Transport Safety Council ETSC, Brussels.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Robinson, L.A. et al. (2010): Valuing the Risk of Death from Terrorist Attacks. Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. Vol.7, Issue 1, Article 14.
  6. Source: Schneider, F., T. Brück and D. Meierrieks (2009): The Economics of Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism: A Survey.
  7. The relocation of crime/terrorism from one place, time, target, offence, or tactic to another as a result of some crime prevention initiative