The recent announcement that the United States would be one of the World Cup 2026 host countries has been met with a flurry of excitement: merchants and businesses anticipate an influx in sales, the tourism industry expects a boost across the board and a general sense of optimism surrounds the location announcement of what is known to be the most widely viewed and followed sporting event in the world – exceeding even the Olympic Games. In fact, the United States boasts the world record for highest attendance at the World Cup games in history, when in 1994 the games drew a total of nearly 3.6 million people – close to 70,000 per match. For those in the business of security, though, the announcement of the 2026 games opens a Pandora’s Box of questions about protection in the face of what can only be described as a massive security vulnerability. While sports fans are swept up in the euphoria of the announcement, security experts are asking themselves, how can we adequately prepare for worst-case scenarios?
Known for its prowess in all things security, the State of Israel is the frequent go-to for cooperative military and battlefield exercises for armies the world over. But in an age where the paradigm has shifted and terrorism has given rise to a new battlefield in concert halls, sports stadiums, malls, restaurants, parks and bars, Israel’s expertise can teach a thing or two about protection on the battlefield of the civilian street, as well.
While terrorism itself is an old story, its methods are constantly changing. The traditional war domains of land, sea, air and space now include cyber-operations as well, catapulting cyber-security into the foreground. North Korea and China have recently invested major resources in cyber-security, signaling to the rest of the world not to overlook the centrality of cyber-warfare.
In Israel, we have acclimated to shifting tides. Responding to a new wave of one-off, lone-wolf attacks on civilians, Israel has been forced to deviate from classic intelligence-gathering methods and focus instead on developing cutting-edge advancements: facial analysis software that pinpoints the millisecond a crowd turns ugly and stops violent outbreaks before they begin; explosive-detection systems that scan a vehicle for hidden weapons in under 8 seconds; drone neutralizers that take control from up to 8,000 feet away; predictive systems laser-focused on behavioral patterns and advanced profiling; and fence patrol robots that travel around a given security perimeter at nearly 40 miles per hour. In the first half of 2018 alone, Israeli security forces managed to stop more than 250 planned terrorist attacks before they were executed utilizing some of these technological advancements and more. Already employed in several sports’ arenas around the world, these Israeli advancements can and should be used to build the protective infrastructure for the 2026 World Cup.
While we lack the ability to precisely predict how the world will look in eight years in an era of frenetic and constant changes in technology, we do know the direction to which the trends are leading us: think smart-cars, smart homes and cities, predictive algorithms – the possibilities are endless with the evolution of IoT. Along with increased technological advancement comes increased threat and we will be forced to continue developing pioneering technologies to prevent terror attacks before they occur.
The 2026 World Cup games will be held in front of live audiences of tens of thousands of people each, and while any public event is susceptible to security breaches, the sheer size of these games make them more susceptible to attack. Preparedness, therefore, must be multi-fold: against threats to personal security at the hands of lone-wolf terrorists or psychotic individuals with access to weapons; against the escalated threat of terrorism from groups seeking to exploit the World Cup for attention; and against cyber-terrorism with innumerable, and unlimited, potential. Covert international hackers can access confidential credit card data, alter athletes’ drug test results and bring down telecommunications systems. With building automation, they can even seize control of the physical stadium. Drones can be used not only to enter secure areas and compromise security in that way, but can also carry payloads like chemical weapons or explosives. Dangerous cyber-operations can be carried out anywhere at any time; the cyber-sphere represents a boundless war zone with no geographic constraints and limitless damage potential. There is no alternative but to combine efforts and engage deeply in international cooperation when facing this threat.
Especially since September 11th, America has vastly shored up its own security apparatus, leading the world in many aspects of preparedness. Terrorism is an uncertain threat – we won’t be warned before an attack takes place at a World Cup game – but the combined focus and expertise of Israel and the United States can serve to fortify against it. The time to strategize on security for the 2026 World Cup is now – and the longstanding relationship between the United States and Israel situate the two countries perfectly to face this challenge together.
Lt. Gen. (Res.) Shaul Mofaz is a former Minister of Defense and former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He is president of the International Homeland Security & Cyber Conference (November 2018 in Tel Aviv).