Shopping Malls? Take the Threat Seriously – They Are In the Terrorist Playbook

When it comes to the next terrorist attack, you can bet on one thing:

It probably will not happen at the Mall of the Americas, London’s Oxford Street or Canada’s West Edmonton shopping complex. These venues are on high security alert after this weekend’s threat issued by the Al-Qaida affiliated Somali terrorist group Al Shabab. The physical security countermeasures and incident response plans were on full display on all the television networks and they were impressive. This will certainly be a deterrent for would-be terrorists.  

What you should bet on is that an operation for this kind of attack might still be quietly underway. Al-Shabab signaled a “Westgate-Mall” style attack might be in the offing. This referred to the bloody 21 September 2012 attack by Al Shabab gunmen on the upscale Westgate Shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya that killed over 60 people and wounded more than 200. Furthermore, there are thousands of shopping venues in the west that – unlike the fortress-like preparations on display at the Mall of the Americas – have little more than a $15 per hour unarmed mall guard roaming around on a Segway.

On all of the recent Sunday talk shows, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson stated in serious tones that “there needs to be awareness” by the American public. That we “needed to be particularly careful.”But what does that really mean?

We at Butchko, Inc. develop security awareness and training programs for corporate employees who travel and work in high-risk areas around the globe. Given the vagueness of our esteemed DHS Secretary, we thought it might be helpful to put some “meat on the bones” and provide some more specific guidelines for what being careful and aware really means both for the individual and for mall property owners who might be considering ways to reduce their security risks.

First, it is important to understand that the threat is real. The armed assault tactics called for by Al Shabab are firmly ensconced in the Al Qaida terrorist tactical playbook. They were first employed by the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba in the attacks on hotels in Mumbai, India in 2008. More recently, Al-Shabab was responsible for the bloody 2012 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya. The terrorists have stated their intent and have a past history of these kinds of attacks. Moreover, there is easy access to soft targets within the U.S. and individuals with the training, motivation, and tools to execute this kind of attack. Al Shabab’s level of planning for its previous attack was high, including dry runs before the actual attack. Weapons, ammunition, and explosives were cached inside the mall in advance, they demonstrated operation and communications security and showed no intent to negotiate or take hostages.

Second, the vulnerability of the public in a shopping mall is painfully apparent. The Westgate Mall attack was simple, effectively lethal, and can be easy to emulate. Access to the mall, like all malls, was wide open, unmonitored, and offered multiple ways for the attackers to flank, evade, and eventually escape responding police forces once the attack was underway. In retrospect, its clear the mall attackers in Nairobi identified areas where they could find cover in a firefight, determined when the mall was the most crowded, located the best vantage points for attack, and found the easiest ways to enter, exit, and evade police.

Third, for all of the publicity being given to the sophisticated security measures at the aforementioned high-profile, iconic shopping destinations, the grim fact is that most shopping malls do not have this kind of security in place at all. Security is geared towards criminal theft such as shoplifting or petty theft, not counter-terrorism.

So what can you do?

  • Consider timing your shopping visit for when the mall is less crowded. Terrorists do their homework in advance and with malls they want to know when it is most crowded. In Nairobi, they hit the mall at 12:30 on a Saturday to achieve maximum lethal effect.
  • Take a little extra time, before leaving home, to do some homework about the mall or town center you are going to and how it is laid out. Knowing the layout of where you are going in advance or simply driving by and observing before entering, gives you situational awareness and a potential tactical advantage in the event an incident occurs.
  • Trust your instincts. If your gut tells you something is not right, it’s not right. Case in point: In the aftermath of active shooter events such as the Aurora, Colorado theater attack, survivors recount how they felt something was not right with the shooter, but then admit they dismissed the thought.
  • Remember: RUN, HIDE, FIGHT. An ingenious countermeasure developed for active shooter security programs, it is a simple set of personal security principles that work in terrorist incidents as well. Consider the following:
  • RUN: Be ready to get off the “X.” That means knowing intuitively where to run when an attack unfolds. Knowing your potential routes away from the incident decreases the potential for confusion, panic, or procrastination on your part – all of which can get you killed. You will substantially increase your chances of survival in an incident if you know where to escape to and put distance between yourself and the attack. There is no time to think when the incident begins – so advance mental preparation is crucial. Case in point: Many of the victims of the Nairobi Westgate Mall attack were killed because they were frightened into immobility.
  • HIDE: If you cannot run, then hide. Find a place where you can shelter in-place and barricade yourself in. Turn off the lights, turn off your cellphone, and if there are others with you, make sure they do the same.
  • FIGHT: The least attractive option. If you are unable to run or hide, then fight. In both the terrorist attacks at Westgate and earlier in the Mumbai hotel attacks, the attackers had no desire to negotiate or take hostages. Killing was their principle objective. Confronted with an armed attacker, fighting back – with whatever you have at hand – is your only option for survival. Its better to risk injury but survive, than to die.
  • KEEP MOVING: Once you escape the immediate area – keep moving away from the scene. Distance is your best friend in this instance. Do not stop to take cell phone videos, pictures, or selfies. The last thing you want is to be caught between first responders and the terrorists.

From a corporate perspective, the drumbeat of threat reporting about potential Lone Wolf or organized terrorist attacks against soft targets such as malls will only get louder and more strident. For mall and shopping district property management firms, signaling that you are cognizant of the threat and have measures in place to mitigate the risk can be good for business. Your liability will be reduced and customers will come to a place where they feel safe. Consider investing in the following:

  • A professional risk assessment that identifies your key vulnerabilities from a threat perspective, examines traffic flow patterns in and out of the mall complex, and develops layered security design solutions that balance the need for open public space and movement with security.
  • Development and implementation of a formal security awareness program, which is regularly reinforced and integrated into the normal flow of business operations. Consider inclusion of multi-media tools such as RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.® Surviving an Active Shooter Event
  • Development and implementation of a well-rehearsed incident response plan that includes tabletop exercises and live drills.

The threat to soft target venues, such as shopping malls, is very likely to increase. Physical security measures have their limitations, however the more robust and visible they are, the more of a deterrent they can be to would-be attackers. For individuals, our advice is to spend a little extra time thinking about where you are going, when, and how you will react if something goes sideways. An ounce of prevention in this regard, can save your life.