The United Nations Executive Directorate (CTED) and the University of Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) 2019 colloquium was held at the University of Chicago on 22 & 23 November 2019. With a total of 35 Delegates and 15 observers, representatives attending reflected the experience of various municipalities, including:

  • Ankara
  • Bali
  • Boston
  • Casablanca
  • Chicago
  • Dublin
  • Eastbourne
  • El Paso
  • Glasgow
  • London
  • Paris
  • Sydney
  • Tel Aviv
  • Washington DC

After short presentations on the first morning by Michéle Coninsx, CTED, Russ Travers, US National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), and CPOST researchers, all participants and experts were all invited to share experiences and insights through a series of moderated discussions. (See program Appendix ‘A’.) The dynamics and style of the event encouraged open and frank discussions in Chatham House environment, in that personal commentary would be used but not attributed.

Through the discussions, it became clear that:

  • Many smaller municipalities lacking resources to plan and protect against terrorist attacks easily become soft targets.
  • There appears to be a communication disconnect between national counter-terrorism efforts and local municipal needs.
  • Public-private partnership model could be more productive by including academia as a third element.
  • The nature of attacks is changing, especially with the advent of social media terrorism, allowing attackers to launch local attacks on smaller municipalities and achieve a global effect.
  • The availability of low-cost technology, such as drones, represents a clear threat of more sophisticated attacks limited only by the imagination of the attacker.
  • According to a former ISIS recruiter, terrorists are “all looking for the next 9/11”.
  • The combination of social media terrorism changing the geography of terrorism, freely available technology and the potential access to weapons of mass destruction, put an attack of catastrophic impact within reach of a small group or individual.
  • Municipalities do not need more information or educational material; they need tools to use in proactive planning of response and resilience strategies.
  • It is possible to group local municipalities to collaborate on planning and share local information, ideas and resources.

There is a fine line between spreading fear and sharing information. 

The key is, however, as an African orator, Tajudeen Abdul Raheem, put it: “Don’t agonise, organise.”

One of the colloquium key aims was to develop a database to assist smaller municipalities to create scalable solutions to suit local needs.

Using a database on the day of an attack is unlikely, however, with the initial focus being on a rapid response.

Of far more use would be a database to feed into table-top exercises to assist in planning and preparation.

El Paso provided just such a detailed briefing in a minute-by-minute outline of an attack along with concerns about future threats. Gathering similar detail of past experiences of terrorist events would help understand what happens during the flow of the attack and the days just after.

Collecting data on how cities respond to attacks could be sued to develop a toolkit for table-top exercises in other cities.

Boston, Glasgow, and Paris offered to provide a detailed account of attacks in their cities to begin gathering data. Other cities could provide similar data.

Products and commercial services could also be added, highlighting the need for public-private cooperation.

Building on the database would allow cities to identify the contacts, materials and solutions needed not only during an attack but in the aftermath. Smaller municipalities could also develop relationships neighbouring municipalities through joint exercises to help combined planning, coordination, and response.

Although applying the lessons of past attacks to present situations is essential — many concepts and principles of the attacks do not change — it is equally important to understand the creative element of attacks.

An emerging threat combination would be a drone attack to deliver WMD in a smaller municipality, while live-streaming either via remote cameras or suicide terrorists.

Alternatively, there is the scenario whereby an individual or small group could use drone technology carrying a payload of explosives to attack multiple critical infrastructure points, such as data centers, power grid locations, or airport scenarios, not necessarily equipped to a level of redundancy able provide a resilient response. For example, they may have the capacity to recover from an attack on a single site and not multiple, simultaneous attacks.

Ultimately, a database could help develop table-top exercises based on worse-case scenarios to assist soft targets to plan for potential attacks and develop improved resilience outcomes.


The colloquium resulted in recommending the following steps:

  1. Create a database — working title ‘Hollow Square’ — populated with:
    1. Past experiences from a minimum of five cities;
    2. Information and material relating to solutions, equipment and standards;
    3. Advice on integrating the database in table-top exercises.
  • Develop a minimum viable database to be launched in June 2020 in New York, including:
    • Half-day launch event outlining the database content and use;
    • A one-day colloquium to test assumptions and usability.
  • Run table-top exercise in November 2020, with El-Paso proposed as a venue, utilising the database and testing its use before launching the complete database.
  • Develop a program of regional colloquiums along the lines of the Chicago event to develop the database further and provide municipalities practical assistance in designing scalable response and resilience.

What is a Hollow Square?

A hollow square was large infantry square Roman legions utilized to defend in all directions. The Hollow Square database will equip soft targets with practical data and tools to develop their own hollow square.