France strives for safety of Euro 2016 fans

A Frenchman detained last month with a cache of weapons had planned attacks during Euro 2016, according to Ukrainian police. The US State Department has issued a related Europe Travel Alert. 

Ukraine's Intelligence Agency SBU Press Service/AP
Ukraine agents detain a suspect at the Yahodyn border crossing on the Ukrainian-Polish border, Ukraine. The suspect is accused of planning attacks "during and before" the 2016 Euro soccer tournament.

Ukraine's intelligence agency, known as the SBU, has arrested a Frenchman accused of plotting terrorist attacks "before and during" the upcoming UEFA European Championship 2016 soccer tournament, heightening already high levels of concern about a potential attack.

France has taken a variety of steps to increase security before the tournament, the BBC reports, although it is uncertain whether the far-right French national, identified as Gregoire Moutaux, planned to attack the games themselves. 

Margaret Gilmore, a senior associate fellow at Britain's Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, tells The Christian Science Monitor there is a low chance of an attack. Yet the threat level has gone up for a variety of reasons, she says: ISIS is getting "squeezed" in Iraq and Syria and may want to show the world they are still "a force to be reckoned with," and after Brussels there is a likelihood that ISIS militants are hiding in Europe.

"There will be massive security, and the slightest terrorist attack would get global publicity. That's why these terrorist groups do it," she says. "ISIS and Al Qaeda both want the maximum amount of civilian deaths, and therefore a big sporting event where there are large crowds of people all together would also bring the type if publicity they want."

The US State Department issued a Europe Travel Alert on May 31, listing the European soccer championship, which runs from June 10 to July 10, as one potential terrorist target, along with the Catholic Church's World Youth Day events in Krakow in late July. 

Ms. Gilmore says France's security will be on the scale of the 2012 London Olympics, and that holding a major tournament while the country is on its highest level of alert is unprecedented.

France has been in a state of emergency since the November 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 people. The period has been extended to July 26 to cover the month-long soccer championship and the Tour de France cycling race that runs from July 2 to 24.The extension of the state of emergency will give French police additional powers, such as the ability to place anyone considered "a threat to security and public order" under house arrest and to tighten border controls and bans on public gatherings, The Telegraph reported.  

The French are using a variety of measures to keep the fans and players as safe as possible, including 90,000 police and other security officials to patrol tournament areas, with 13,000 in Paris alone. The stadiums and the bases for the 24 countries competing have been declared no-fly zones and will be heavily guarded, CNN reported. Authorities have also introduced technology around the stadiums that can take control of and divert drones rather than destroying them and risking injuries to those on the ground.

In "fan zones," where attendees can watch the games on large outdoor screens, police will use metal detectors, video surveillance, and sniffer dogs. The fan zones have been the target of criticism as a potential target for terrorism, even though their safety budget was doubled to about $27 million. 

Former French police chief Frédéric Péchenard told The Telegraph the fan zone at the foot of the Eiffel Tower would "offer terrorists a chance for massacre." The government believes it will be easier to keep the large numbers of spectators safe in a fan zone than if the fans were spread out throughout the city, but warned local authorities to avoid hosting similar events with lower amounts of security, the paper reports.

Gilmore says security will be increased both in France and at transportation hubs in other countries from which fans will depart to France. 

"The fans will have to realize getting into the grounds is going to be quite a hassle," she says. "They're going to be really kept herded around," and police will "physically search every single person going in, and that is going to take time."

Players should also be prepared for extremely high levels of security, she says. 

"These teams are going to have very strong guards and heavily armed police officers guarding them, so the teams are going to have to put up with a lot of protection, she said, "They're going to find it quite difficult to mingle with the fans. They're going to be kept very, very secure."  

The Ukrainian Security Service's Monday's announcement of a failed plot has underscored concerns. The SBU announced they had been following the 25 year-old suspect since December. He had purchased five machine guns, two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 125 kilograms (275 pounds) of TNT, 100 detonators, 20 balaclavas and other weapons before his arrest at the border crossing between Ukraine and Poland last month, according to the Associated Press. 

The young man, believed to be an ultra-nationalist protesting France's immigration policies, had planned more than a dozen attacks at mosques, bridges, synagogues and roads "before and during" Euro 2016, SBU chief Vasyl Hrytsak said, according to the BBC. 

Rick Mathews, the director of the National Center for Security & Preparedness at the University at Albany, SUNY, tells the Monitor there is an increased threat for the tournament, but he does not think attendance will be largely affected.

Professor Mathews said cancellation of the event is unlikely, but if more concrete threats are discovered it is possible games during the tournament could be held behind closed doors with no fans in attendance. 

The Euro 2016 tournament was the initial target of the group of terrorists who attacked Brussels in March, Mohamed Abrini, a suspected terrorist, told Belgian investigators, according to the International Business Times.

Soccer stadiums in Europe have previously been the target of planned terrorist attacks. Most notably, during the November terrorist attacks, three suicide bombers tried to gain entry to the Stade de France, the country's national stadium in Paris, during a France-Germany soccer match. All three set off their suicide vests outside the stadium. In November, a match between Germany and the Netherlands was cancelled after a terrorist cell was discovered to be planned on detonating five bombs in the city, including three at the stadium, The Guardian reported. 

Fred Roberts, a professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Command, Control and Interoperability Center for Advanced Data Analysis, has worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on stadium security. Professor Roberts tells the Monitor that stadiums are often a target, especially larger stadiums, because of the potential for major economic and psychological impact. However, the increased amount of security at stadiums is a deterrent for terrorists.  

"The Paris attacks, at least on Stade de France, didn't work, and it showed the plan to protect folks in the stadium wasn't so bad," he says. "On the other hand, nothing is perfect, so there are always going to be vulnerabilities. There is nothing that is 100 percent when it comes to security." 

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