International Special Events

By McGee, James A. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, January 2006 | Go to article overview
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International Special Events

McGee, James A., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

The Summer Olympic Games ceremoniously concluded on August 29, 2004, in the heart of Athens, Greece. The culmination of the event was celebrated as testimony to peace and world unity. In retrospect, what factors were employed to ensure a safe and secure athletic contest? This question requires a close examination of the measures taken to address an international special event. (1) It also reveals the necessity to begin security preparations early, well before the occurrence, allowing adequate time to address potential training requirements, exercise emergency response capabilities, and implement appropriate corrective actions. Multiagency and multinational cooperation, coordination, and communication are critically important pieces of the security equation.


The environment for terrorism changed dramatically throughout the world after Greece was awarded the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in 1997. In fact, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, redefined the role and responsibilities of the U.S. government (USG) when addressing special events in foreign countries, and the threat of terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens and interests escalated. The risk of deadly aggression during special events increased as the capability of mass media improved, allowing live broadcasts on a worldwide scale. Further, an elevated tendency for terrorist groups to resort to acts of violence and the continued proliferation and accessibility of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) contributed to the threat as well.

Terrorist attacks extended geographically during the months leading up to the opening ceremonies for the 2004 Summer Olympic Games. The escalation of tension due to the war in Iraq and the bombings in Istanbul, Turkey, and Madrid, Spain, raised concerns in Athens. Under the direction of the U.S. Department of State (DOS), unprecedented security measures were employed to prevent a terrorist attack against the Olympic Games.

Historically, the FBI fulfills a fundamental role during USG involvement with special events management, including all of those potentially requiring federal assistance. The FBI's function in special events is defined within numerous statutes and presidential directives. These authorities, combined with the FBI's responsibilities in combating terrorism, provide the predication for FBI commitment.

The Olympic Games represent the clearest example of a special event given the international participation and broad-based viewing audience. Such a scene provides the perfect stage for a terrorist seeking global recognition and a platform to voice political demands. A less obvious example of a special event includes the trial of Timothy McVey, accused and convicted of the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Such a setting also represents an active target for terrorist attack by individuals sympathetic to antigovernment ideologies who seek an opportunity for mass media recognition.


FBI involvement in special events is generally within the continental United States (CONUS). Given the complexities associated with security preparations and logistics, it is important to understand the protocols in place that provide direction when addressing a domestic special event before examining the enhanced challenges associated with addressing international ones.

Each special event is evaluated in terms of size, threat, significance, duration, location, attendance, media coverage, dignitaries, and viewing audience. The FBI assigns a special event readiness level (SERL) to those that require counterterrorism (CT) support. The SERLs are divided into four categories. SERL I events require the full support of the USG and significant predeployment of USG CT response assets. The Olympic Games fall within this category. Until the 2004 Olympics in Athens, this designation applied to Olympic Games occurring only within the United States.

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