On Saturday, September 21, 2013, unidentified gunmen attacked Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya. The attack resulted in 67 deaths, and more than 175 people were reportedly wounded in the mass shooting. Unfortunately, that was very real.
The Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the incident, which it characterized as retribution for the Kenyan military’s deployment in the group’s home country of Somalia. What warning signs were readily available? What security cues were missed? How could this have been deterred or thwarted altogether? Monday morning quarterbacking is a very easy job, and that is not my intent.
Malls are “soft targets.” We need to change that. Large open spaces where people can come and go, congregate, carry items and freely move about. The United States has 1,200 enclosed shopping centers across the country representing America and its wealth in commerce and prosperity. Which one of us doesn’t have fond memories of Saturday afternoons at the mall with friends? The United States has long enjoyed a feeling of pioneer freedom and independence, which I love but could this also work against us. The question at hand is how to provide more security to people without disrupting their way of life or undermining commerce. Do we need to reduce the number of entrances, add metal detectors and dogs at every door to stop guns and explosives? According to a study done by former Navy Seals the Nation is not ready for that.
According to Malachy Kavanagh of the International Council of Shopping Centers, a trade group that is helping to shape security standards for the industry. Malls face in miniature what the Homeland Security Department wrestles with every day: How to provide more security to people without disrupting their way of life or undermining commerce. “The key is balancing the need for additional security measures and the public’s appetite for those measures.” Mall developers and owners have resisted employing aggressive security measures for fear of scaring customers away. They also want to keep overhead fees for their retail tenants down as much as possible.
Over the years, the Israelis have developed a sophisticated security system to protect enclosed shopping centers. The cornerstone of the Israeli strategy is to deny a bomber entrance to the mall by creating layers of defenses from paramilitary sentries to watchmen trained to recognize the behavior patterns of people about to blow themselves up.
American mall owners, however, found many of Israel’s methods as unpalatable as some of the early advice coming out of Homeland Security. Arik Arad, who served as Israel’s head of shopping-center security, suggest the best way to fight terrorism is to learn the terrorist modus operandi. As a former law enforcement officer, one of the first things you are taught in school is the method of operation or modus operandi (MO) for short. By understanding the MO of a burglar or drug dealer, you can improve your odds of catching them.
The Israeli techniques use the psychological studies of suicide bombers to understand their methods and establish security protocols to protect property and people alike. It’s vital to understand that incidents don’t just happen. Like our SWAT units, perpetrators have scouted the place, prepared, trained, rehearsed, prepared again and then executed. If security can intervene at one of these points security’s actions may thwart the act all together at that location.
Israel’s security is physical, but it also uses skills in senses and behavior pattern recognition, which aims at recognizing potential threats through observation of the perpetrator’s mannerisms. The methods include observing small movements of the lips, eyebrows, and nose, to detect nervousness and suspiciousness. In many cases, suicide bombers will anoint themselves with perfume, fragrant soap or rosewater in preparation for what they believe will be their martyrdom which obviously would be the security person’s sense of smell at use. Obviously, like any method one of many signs do not indicate you have a bomber on your hands. Intense training and a quality security candidate can implement the training to save lives possibly. Another factor to consider is the education of guests to the mall to be vigilant and notify security no matter how unimportant it may seem to the individual.
Part of the methods success is to act quickly once the suspicious behavior has been identified. The method taught is to walk up, look the suspect in the eye and ask: “Can I help you?” The Israelis call it “soft contact” and find that it’s often enough to force a bomber to abandon his plan or make him detonate early, away from his intended target. Obviously due to this fact the training and qualifications of the security people should be considered.
Other methods currently being used in the United States are parking lots designed with choke points that funnel cars through areas that cause them to slow down. Some use automatic license plate readers plugged into local police databases. If a car is stolen or has otherwise been flagged, the system can issue an alert. Uniformed and plain cloth officers are vital to any program. Some malls use less obvious systems like monitored security cameras, bomb-sniffing dogs, and bomb barriers.
The world is rapidly changing, and security concerns are on all of our minds. If you or your security force needs consulting services, training or assistance in any way, please feel free to contact us.