The Softest Target: Security Planning for Houses of Worship

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John Stein


Institutions particularly vulnerable to attack due to a lack of security measures and a high concentration of people are what analysts typically refer to as soft targets. The unique nature of a house of worship, with its inviting atmosphere and open doors, limits the constructs available to develop holistic security plans for these soft targets. How can homeland security experts assist in resolving security matters in the religious space, especially when houses of worship lack the resources to protect themselves?
In looking for targets to select, terrorists, as rational actors, will choose a target that inspires the greatest fear and spreads their message. The softer the target, the greater effect is a cornerstone of the terrorist attack strategy. The action of hardening a target will increase the perceived cost to terrorist actors, which causes them to make the rational decision not to attack the target. Deterrence by denial involves taking soft targets and making them too difficult to attack without excessive costs and planning. Houses of worship sit as some to the most vulnerable soft targets and how soft target mitigation deterrence strategies are utilized is the impetus of this thesis.
Using an Appreciative Inquiry Model, this thesis seeks to develop a portfolio that homeland security experts can use to assist in the development and implementation of security plans in houses of worship. The Appreciative Inquiry Model has five steps: define, discover, dream, design, and deliver. The first step exactly defines the scope of the thesis as it relates to securing religious spaces: soft space protection strategies that will best fit in the religious space. The discovery phase researches three distinct areas of soft space security: current programs utilized by houses of worship, government programs to assist religious organizations, and commercially offered programs for houses of worship. Once a large data set of strategies and plans is unearthed, the next phase analyzes the next best steps and attempts to envision the best possible plans for houses of worship. Within the design and delivery phases, an actual security plan is developed for Northminster Presbyterian Church (NPC) with the goal of extracting the best strategies and research to apply it to a real-world scenario. In delivering an emergency operations plan within a microcosm of one venue, many valuable lessons can be applied to other faith-based organizations.
Religious spaces are vulnerable and the symbolic nature of acts against a house of worship makes them a prime target for various criminal and terrorist actors. In combination with the threat is the lack of preparedness that houses of worship face as their strained resources and unique hurdles set up roadblocks that prevent the majority of religious institutions from having a plan at all. A lack of a plan is not from a lack of resources, though. Resources abound from government agencies, private vendors, and other religious institutions to assist in securing houses of worship. Homeland security experts have outlined the threats to religious spaces and provided the tactics and strategies necessary to assist in the protection of these unique spaces. Guides, audits, exercises, webinars, public events, and information networks have been created at the federal level to assist houses of worship. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency are active in assisting faith-based organizations at every level of preparedness, planning, and mitigation. Religious institutions also have developed their own networks and security teams to build resiliency, prepare for possible threats, and mitigate hazards. If neither is of interest to a faith-based organization, commercial programs offered by insurance companies and vendors offer holistic security systems for faith-based organizations.
As a real world exercise, the Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Houses of Worship, along with the webinar recorded on July 25, 2013 by the Department of Education in conjunction with FEMA, was used to frame and develop a security plan for NPC. Protective security advisors from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency came to NPC to perform what is known as an “assist visit,” which is an audit of a commercial soft target space. The Safety Committee then developed an emergency operations plan based on best practices found throughout the soft target security space landscape. The committee has not completed the work of developing a plan, which speaks to the difficulty of the task that houses of worship encounter when developing a plan. The complexity of security on a diverse campus, while integrating multiple voices, is a major hurdle for faith-based organizations. The dedication and time required to follow through can easily explain why NPC is in the third iteration of a security planning team.
Those not committed to planning and modifying their soft spaces leave themselves most vulnerable as the threat continues to grow. Houses of worship are particularly vulnerable and have become an ever-increasing target in recent years. Assessing vulnerabilities and then planning for the worst-case scenarios are an integral step in defending the sacred spaces that religious orders occupy. More steps must be taken beyond planning for a response to threats and more must be done to determine the effectiveness of strategies already employed. As seen with the development of an emergency operations plan at NPC, the process of creating a plan is in itself inherently valuable and allows a faith-based community to answer questions necessary to improving site security.
The various resources available to houses of worship and the roadblocks to implementation of any plan are outlined, but many avenues of research are still needed to obtain a full picture of the faith-based security landscape. Investigation into implementation is the next step. Questions remain as to who is using the plans, at what level they are being implemented, and are faith-based organizations continuing to plan as the threat evolves. Plans outlined have not necessarily been evaluated for effectiveness, whether the federal government or individual entities developed them. The Department of Homeland Security measures plans through a protective measure index, which evaluates the weakest links in a security structure through resiliency measures. Research into the difficulties of execution has not been discussed. The most pressing questions are what actually happened during active assailant events in a house of worship and what are the lessons learned that could be disseminated to other communities. Acknowledgement of the issues surrounding domestic violence within the religious community and creating tools to combat domestic violence through houses of worship was frequently discussed in various sources for this thesis and needs further development. Houses of worship and their role in disaster preparedness and recovery is another avenue worth exploring.
This thesis attempts to provide a comprehensive look at the security landscape for houses of worship and filter them through the creation of a security plan for an individual faith-based organization. The difficulty of creating an emergency operations plan for an individual congregation is representative of the information found regarding church security. There are many voices, many ways to get to the finish line, and many ways to fall off the path and end up without improving the security posture of the sacred space. Site audits, planning committees, federal and local resources, and other religious orders are great places for a house of worship to start. Homeland security experts are just one key piece of the security puzzle for faith-based organizations. Internal security and threat mitigation planning has taken on a life of its’ own within houses of worship, and especially within minority communities of the Jewish and Muslim faith. Sharing of lessons learned by faith-based organizations can have a lasting effect of communal integration and collaboration, strengthen the community, lessen the risk of attack, and create resiliency amongst attendees.

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