Foreign Policy Blogs

Prague’s Terrorist Perils

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In late August 2016, a Czech entomologist and anti-immigrant nationalist named Martin Konvicka planned and staged a fake ISIS assault in the middle Prague’s Old Town Square. The incident took place near some restaurants, close to the astrological clock and the statue of Catholic priest, reformer, and martyr Jan Hus. While Wenceslas Square is packed with tourists mostly  in its shopping district, it is Old Town Square near the Charles Bridge that is marked more by a carnival atmosphere with snake charmers, magicians, restaurants, Thai massage parlors, singers, and men making bubbles that children chase.

Konvicka was clever, taking advantage of that carnival like condition to apply to City Hall for a permit to indulge in a “protest” where his theatrics would blend into a city where theatrics of some sort are common place to note. What Konvicka did in Prague was what any competent terrorist would do when planning an attack—he used legal means and an exploited vulnerability to procure a venue and a method of operation where he and his crew would blend into the environment prior to his strike so well that he could literally walk a camel into his target – Old Town Square.

What was disturbing to me even after only a few weeks after this hoax was the lack of a robust physical police presence in Old Town Square when I visited only a few days later. In Wenceslas Square, there is noticeable police presence, especially as you walk up the hill towards the monument where two Czechoslovakian students, Jan Palach and Jan Zajik killed themselves in 1969 to protest the failed uprising of Secretary Alexander Dubcek and Soviet invasion in August 1968. However, in Old Town Square where all the uproar happened, there was only one small police van with the occasional police car driving by that I could see, with two or three lightly armed police officers helping tourists.

Even with the assumption that heavier weapons were inside that van, the time it would take to retrieve them in the midst of a real attack and for reinforcements to arrive would be critical and probably very costly. Our tour guide did explain that plainclothes police were stationed throughout the area but should an active barricade/hostage or other “sophisticated” terrorist situation unfold, as Kent Layne Oots might call this, police would be at a disadvantage in a reactive situation and possibly facing terrorists with superior firepower at least initially, and armed with grenades, plastic explosives, IEDs and a coherent well thought through plan of action.

Likewise, what appeared to be similar problems were evident in parts of Prague’s Jewish Quarter—all of which are prime targets for Islamic extremists. For example, when we passed the Maisel Synagogue, which is noted for the golden hat that is perched inside its Star of David at its entrance, I did not see any security in front, even though one or two others said they saw guards on the street at or near the synagogue. Security at the Old New Synagogue, located on a fairly large street next to some stairs was conspicuously absent. At the Old Jewish cemetery where tourists flock, our prepaid tickets were scanned but there were no handbag or electronic searches. In fact, the only place I saw where systematic detection was in place and operative was at Prague Castle where detectors and wands were used by police to scan visitors at turnstiles.

As disconcerting as all the foregoing was, it was not as disturbing from a security point of view as the visit my wife and I took to the concentration camp Terezin, also known as Theresienstadt. We visited on a separate tour two days before our tour in Prague began. Terezin is located in a part of the Sudentenland area and, like Prague’s Jewish Quarter and all concentration camp sites, it is a potential target of Islamic extremists because of its inherent Jewish nature and high symbolic value.

From the terrible Dresden barracks, now in disrepair, throughout the town, and up through the prison which is about a quarter of a mile or so away from the center of town, there was no sign of police or military presence. I asked our guide about this and she told us that the only security change she could think of was that buses could no longer pull up in front of the Yizkor (“Remembrance”) museum. Our guide remarked she had never seen Terezin so desolate; usually it was full of tourists and she could only surmise this had something to do with recent terrorist assaults in Western Europe.

That Terezin goes unprotected for those who want to learn more about the Holocaust and that the Jewish Quarter at the very least suffers from gaps in security is shameful given the recent terrorist assault hoax perpetrated that has illuminated security shortfalls and the set of terrorist attacks in the European Union. Czech officials need to embrace anticipatory foresight into their thinking about security and view their place in the EU as part of a dynamic environment that reverberates with change and ripple effects that spread. This ISIS hoax underscores some bureaucratic security problems to be corrected and there appear to be areas for security improvement against the backdrop of very vulnerable targets. Benchmarks for improvement and timetables for implementation are required now before yet another tragedy occurs.

 

Author

Richard Chasdi
Richard Chasdi

Dr. Chasdi is a Professor of Management and Associate Director at the Center for Complex and Strategic Decisions at Walsh College. He teaches International Security, International Business Management, and Culture and Doing Business in the Middle East. He is an internationally recognized specialist in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies and his research interests include multinational corporations’ security in an increasingly globalized world.

He holds a B.A. from Brandeis University in Politics, an M.A. from Boston College, and a Ph.D. from Purdue University in Political Science.

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