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The Threat of Terrorism

The November 2015 terrorist attack in Paris, France, and December 2015 mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, have raised awareness about the threat of terrorism by violent extremists. The Department of Homeland Security defines these individuals as those “who support or commit ideologically-motivated violence to further political goals.”

As places of public gathering without extensive security protection, churches and houses of worship are generally considered “soft targets,” much like shopping malls, restaurants, stores and theaters. The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines a soft target as “a person or thing that is relatively unprotected or vulnerable, especially to military or terrorist attack.”

Even in times of tragedy, your church doesn’t have to feel helpless against threats of terrorism. A few key actions can help prepare for the threats your organization may face: education, assessment and planning.


Understand the threat of terrorism, which may vary by the geographical location of your facility. In addition to mass shootings, terrorist attacks also may include explosive devices, chemical or biological threats, nuclear or radiological dispersion devices, and cyber-attacks. General information on the terrorism threat is available on the Department of Homeland Security’s website. While terrorist attacks with chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological agents are possible, the likelihood of such events occurring at your facility is not high. Thus, it makes sense to broaden your plan to consider the range of emergency situations that your church may face.


An important starting point is to identify the potential hazards that your organization faces and assess your vulnerability to them. While the threat of terrorism is real, be sure to also assess the common emergency situations that your organization is more likely to face, such as medical emergencies, fires, extreme weather and natural disasters, as well as an active shooter situation. Consultation with your local law enforcement agency may be beneficial in conducting a security assessment of your facility. Many agencies are willing to assist churches in such an assessment and provide recommendations for improvement in security.


After the assessment is complete, develop an emergency plan for your organization to address the various threats identified in the assessment. In your plan, consider actions such as evacuation, shelter, lockdown, and how you will communicate with your congregation. Consider your security plan and the level of protection that you feel is appropriate for your location. For some churches, that may include the presence of off-duty law enforcement officers, armed professional security, or trained volunteers.

GuideOne recommends two resources that can help your church prepare for such an event – GuideOne’s Sample Emergency Action and Recovery Plan for Religious Organizations and the federal government’s Developing High Quality Emergency Operation Plans for Houses of Worship. The document provided by the federal government includes a section specifically devoted to the “active shooter” situation.

The recent terrorist attacks serve as reminder for all organizations to be vigilant. According to the Department of Homeland Security, “if you see something, say something” to authorities. It also is a reminder to re-visit your organization’s emergency plan and prepare for the various disaster scenarios that your church could potentially face.

© 2024 GuideOne Insurance. GuideOne® is the registered trademark of the GuideOne Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to give specific legal or risk management advice, nor are any suggested checklists or action plans intended to include or address all possible risk management exposures or solutions. You are encouraged to retain your own expert consultants and legal advisors in order to develop a risk management plan specific to your own activities.