It Could Happen Here: Super Bowl 50 As Terror Target

In the wake of last year's ISIS suicide bombing outside the Stade de France in Paris, a Super Bowl terror attack is no longer unthinkable. How will officials secure the game?

by Ty Schalter
Feb 2 2016, 1:45pm

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of Super Bowl Week at VICE Sports.

Just after halftime of Super Bowl XLVII, a curtain of darkness fell on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Baltimore Ravens had been erasing any doubt about which team was going home with the Lombardi trophy—but when the broadcast went black, some of the nearly 100 million people watching the game on television were worried about much more than the outcome of the game.

Americans used to live with a sort of blissful disregard for mass terror threats: Yes, they could happen here, but they probably wouldn't. Domestic terror seemed limited to one-offs carried out by wingnuts, isolated incidents by stereotypical loners with incomprehensible motives. That old worst-case scenario was most vividly realized in the 1977 Hollywood thriller Black Sunday. The film tied a Palestinian terror cell, a Vietnam-vet pilot of the loner/wingnut variety, and the American-as-Apple-Pie Goodyear Blimp together in a plot to rain death upon the big game. At the time, the premise seemed wildly far-fetched, on the cusp of camp. That feels like a long time ago.

Read More: VICE Sports Q&A: The Security Expert Who Believes We Are Doing Stadium Security Wrong

After September 11, 2001, any large gathering felt like a potential terror target, particularly those with outsized cultural significance like sporting events. When President George W. Bush took the mound of Yankee Stadium in a bulletproof vest to throw out the first pitch of Game 3 of the 2001 World Series, the symbolism wasn't hard to suss out. Nor was the underlying anxiety.

Last November's terrorist attacks on Paris—and especially, the attempted bombing of Stade de France during a major international soccer match—resonated with sports fans' darkest fears. With Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara this Sunday, it's worth asking again: Could something similar, or worse, happen here?

A potential target. —Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When the Superdome went dark in 2013, nobody laughed. Then cameras and eyes adjusted. The building was safe. Lights had gone out, but half of the main ring of overhead lights remained operational. Fear quickly relaxed into confusion, then amusement. For a Super Bowl committee proudly welcoming the world to a post-Katrina New Orleans, it was a minor embarrassment—and that, in the eyes of security experts, was a major triumph.

"People like me looked at that and were like, 'That's awesome that it only went half-dark,'" says Juliette Kayyem, a former Obama appointee to the Department of Homeland Security and current board member of the International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), a global clearinghouse for stadium security know-how.

Security officials know that NFL games, especially the Super Bowl, qualify as inviting targets. So does the league. As a result, stadium security in the post-9/11 era is grounded in what Kayyem calls "layered defenses," a series of overlapping measures designed to thwart potential attacks. The most obvious parts of this are the routine hassles that fans go through before stepping through a turnstile—pat-downs, metal detectors, bag checks. That's not nearly all of it.

"There's "so much surveillance going on beforehand," Kayyem says. "There's undercover police, there's camera surveillance, crowd-control planning, evacuation planning, stadiums are built in ways now that take this into account—for example, not being too close to a highway. So, security's going on so many different levels; the moment that you're before the security guard is just one of a hundred pieces. It may not be entirely effective, or it may be annoying, but it's part of what we call a layered defense."

"Oh," Kayyem added. "I didn't even get into all the cyber stuff." Social media and online chatter is monitored in the run-up to a sports event, and stadiums' own IT infrastructure must be safeguarded.

James Carville served as co-chairman of Super Bowl XLVII with his wife Mary Matalin, and despite a long career in the highest levels of politics—another highly public, high-security industry with similar needs for protecting large public gatherings—he was stunned by the scope and complexity of efforts to secure the Superdome. "When you walk into a Super Bowl security meeting, your first thought is, 'Damn. I didn't know we had this many law enforcement [agencies],'" says Carville, who now works with the ICSS. "Good God, it's the whole alphabet soup at the table."

Accustomed to government agencies protecting their own "fiefdoms," Carville was surprised to see the degree of knowledge-sharing and cooperation. "The Coast Guard was involved, the Secret Service was involved, the NOPD, the Orleans Parish Sheriff Department, the FBI—and of course, the NFL has its own security arm," he says.

The NFL did not reply to requests for comment on this story. The few individual teams who replied either deferred to the league office, or have a policy of not discussing security procedures. MSA Security, who provides on-site screening, bomb dogs, and physical security for multiple NFL teams, initially responded positively to a VICE Sports request for information—but spokesperson Jessica Hagstrom later said that "the NFL prefers we don't comment on security practices at this time."

"The NFL, though they have other safety and security issues to deal with, is pretty sophisticated and aggressive vis-à-vis physical security and fan safety," Kayyem says. "They take prevention and intelligence and interfacing with local law enforcement very seriously."

Denver Broncos fans held a moment of silence following last November's terror attacks in Paris. — Photo by Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Every fan's nightmare played out in Paris, when an international soccer friendly between France and Germany was the first target of an ISIS terror attack. When it was revealed that a pat-down detected and prevented three suicide bombers from entering the stadium, saving dozens of lives, some NFL fans and observers saw stadium security in new light:

"For someone who studies sports and thinks about security around major international events, this was pretty remarkable," Kayyem says. "There are two major pieces. One, the pat-down actually found the explosives. I mean, you always kind of wonder, 'Is it going to work?' You only ever hear stories of the times somebody got something in—you know, the reporter 'testing the system' and getting something through.

"The other major part was the evacuation, which I think we're going to learn about in a good way. Once you learn that your exits are vulnerable, we train to limit that vulnerability. You only have the capacity to secure a couple exits, so having a staggered evacuation was really smart—because what they didn't know at the time was, were there a bunch of guys with guns hanging out at every single exit? But they knew they could fortify particular exits.

"Everyone talks about panic in these situations, but what they did—and part of it was a delayed response, part of it was there was a VIP there—was a really important step in thinking through not just the incident, but that there might be follow-ons. Especially in this age of terror, you have to know there may be two, three, four follow-ons."

International security expert Rafi Sela, president of AR Challenges Ltd., a global security consulting group with offices in the US and Israel, was less impressed with the security effort in Paris. And his specific criticisms potentially could apply to the Super Bowl as well.

Last year, Sela told VICE Sports that "the American way" of trying to "find the weapons by scanning somehow" is misguided; that creating crowds of spectators around checkpoints also creates prime terror targets; and that French security should have prevented attackers from ever bringing "a suicide bomb vest even close to the stadium" through better observation and intelligence-gathering at "the borders, the airports, the seaports, the public transportation, the venues leading to or from the event."

Former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis says ISIS' involvement in the Paris attacks highlights the need for Super Bowl security efforts that extend well beyond game day and the immediate geographic vicinity of Levi's Stadium.

"Prior to this, ISIS was a very effective military force in Iraq and Syria, but mostly asked people to radicalize themselves online," says Davis who served as commissioner during the Boston Marathon bombings. "[With the Paris attacks], they've clearly proven they have operationalized, and our response to that threat has to evolve to account for that."

How real is the threat? Kayyem is adamant that the Super Bowl makes for a tempting terror target. Like the soccer match in Paris, it's a high-profile event with lots of people crammed into a relatively small space. Perhaps more importantly, she says, "terrorists want people watching, they want mass panic, they want to show their boldness, and what would be more bold than attacking an American football game?

"To be honest, [NFL games] are American. No other country has this phenomenon known as football, or at least most other countries don't, and in that way it's a symbol of us—much more so than a soccer game, or a bicycle race."

The Super Bowl doesn't exactly downplay its cultural symbolism. — Photo by Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Securing sports stadiums—like security in general—is a balancing act between safety and liberty, between locking down a potential target and allowing spectators to, well, enjoy the game they're attending. On one hand, the NFL wants to keep fans safe; on the other, it wants them to have fun. Or at least not feel like they're entering a SuperMax prison.

An appropriate balance isn't easy to strike. To wit: the league's restrictive clear-bag policy is extremely unpopular, especially with women. NFL analysts like ESPN's Sarah Spain and the Houston Chronicle's Stephanie Stradley offered scathing takedowns when the policy was implemented, and it remains an irritant for many football-going families.

"Look, I'm a mother of three," Kayyem says. "I recognize the burden of those years, where my kids had a lot of gear. I get it. The challenge of sports security is [that] the more security apparatus there is on any of these events, the less enjoyable it becomes. We want airline security, we want sports security, except when it stops us—from when it stops me—from doing what I want, which is just get on the damn airplane or watch sports."

Carville concurs. "I think people have to realize," he says, "when you choose to fly on an airline, you give up a certain level of privacy; when you choose to go to an event, you also have to be willing to give up a certain expectation of privacy."

While specific stadium security measures are constantly being tweaked—calibrated and recalibrated based on the nature of active and assumed threats—Kayyem thinks the NFL could do more to educate fans about emergency procedures, both at the Super Bowl and in general. "Like if something happens at Fenway," she says, "I don't have any idea of where I'm supposed to go or how it's supposed to work."

To extend the airline comparison, one can't board a plane without being told exactly what to do in an emergency situation; by contrast, none of the fans at Super Bowl XLVII had any idea what to do in case of a blackout. "The public has to be engaged, has to be given the tools to be able to respond to these incidents," Kayyem says, "because we can't just rely on 911 anymore."

See all of VICE Sports' Super Bowl 50 coverage here.