June 24, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Terror Theater

• A June 23 attempted hostage situation in a movie theater in Viernheim, Germany, ended with police shooting the alleged attacker

• Movie theaters are very soft targets and present immense difficulties in mitigating casualties in the event of a shooting

• Initial reporting surrounding hostage situations fuels the theatrics of terror; a rush to report erroneous facts leads to implications of terrorism based on little more than location

• The widespread fear of another terror attack shows how on edge Western societies have become in the wake of attacks deliberately targeting civilian life.


The reality that terrorism is part theater was reaffirmed during a June 23 attempted hostage situation in a movie theater in Viernheim, Germany. According to German officials, the incident, which left the alleged attacker dead and no other casualties, does not appear to be directly terror-related. Germany, like much of Western Europe, has been at a heightened threat level due to fears of attacks inspired or directed by the so-called Islamic State

Unfortunately, movie theaters represent an attractive target for someone hoping to inflict mass causalities and gain instant notoriety. The layout of a movie theater allows a gunman the ability to stand between hundreds of people and all available exits, usually in the dark. In movie theaters there is no ballistic cover, though seats and darkness do provide some concealment. 

The July 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado demonstrated how confined spaces lend themselves to mass casualties in cases of active shooters. The Aurora attack left 12 people dead and 70 people wounded—an abnormally large number for a single gunman. The shooter fired 76 rounds, most from a semi-automatic rifle. In such a chaotic and poorly lit scene, it is not just the bullets but the rush for safety that causes casualties. In July 2015, a gunman with a pistol killed two and wounded nine in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana.

In October 2002, Chechen terrorists seized 850 people in the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow, Russia. Between 40-50 terrorists were able to hold hundreds of people hostage for several days, due in large part to the standard theater layout of limited ingress and egress, as well as lack of cover. The resulting rescue attempt by Russian security forces, which involved an unspecified gas, killed 130 hostages as well as the hostage-takers.

Aside from the fact that movie theaters are prime terrorist targets, elevated fears of terrorism create their own type of theater. Initial reports surrounding the hostage situation in Viernheim led to immediate speculation that it was a terrorist attack. News reports were quickly retweeted by Islamic State supporters, celebrating what was perceived to be another attack against the West. Several supporters even referred to it as ‘an operation.’ German authorities quickly provided updates about the situation and quieted frenzied speculation surrounding the attacker and the number of casualties. 

The incident highlights how much of an impact recent terrorist attacks have had on normal civilian life. Putting aside the understandable concerns surrounding the security of events like the Euro 2016 soccer tournament, smaller entertainment venues—such as a café in Paris or a club in Orlando—are now considered potential targets. Groups such as the Islamic State, which enthusiastically calls for random attacks against civilians, thrive on the fear and speculation surrounding incidents like the one in Viernheim. The Islamic State cares less about the reality of an attack than it does in perpetuating the perception that attacks are always imminent. The disruption of normalcy is essential to the theatrics of terror and difficult to counter when the threat is both real and inflated.


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