In December, 2008, I wrote an after action Mumbai Attacks Security Briefing in which I advised that the public safety agencies and high risk/high impact targets should be prepared for coordinated multi-site urban terror assaults (commando style attacks) that are modeled after the Mumbai terror attacks. Specifically, I suggested that the operational signature of the Mumbai attacks provided important information that can assist officials in preparing for and responding to potentially similar events in the future. The recently reported terror plot which appears to have been foiled should serve as a stark reminder to our public safety and emergency response agencies that the specter of a large scale coordinated terrorist attack focused on multiple soft targets remains a major concern.
Few details regarding the uncovered plot have been disclosed but some key information has been released, including the fact that the terror plot involved numerous operatives across Europe, attacks were to be coordinated and targets where possibly focused on hotels, malls and stadiums. This information suggests a fit with the Mumbai attacks. The significance of the Mumbai attacks should not be lost in that it represented a continuing departure from the historically favored terror targets of air and rail transportation, and a move towards commando style coordinated attacks. The Mumbai attacks were immensely “successful” from a terrorist perspective, causing large scale carnage and disruption across a major metropolitan region and “success” breeds emulation.
The Mumbai attacks should be seen as part of a natural progression and continuing adaptation of tactics that are moving towards exploiting soft targets using commando like operations. Predecessor events pointed to this new type of threat. These include the savage Beslan School attack in Russia on September 1, 2004, where Chechen terrorists took more than 1,100 people hostage and 334 hostages (including 186 school children) were massacred when they detonated explosives inside the school building. The Beslan attack was preceded by a similar large scale soft target attack on the Moscow Theater on October 22, 2002. The Moscow Theater attack involved over 40 Chechen terrorists taking 850 people hostage. After a two day standoff, Russian security forces conducted a raid and 170 people died. In addition to large scale attacks on soft targets involving many operatives, terrorists have shown an increased attraction towards attacking hotels. Attacks include hotels in Bali, Egypt, and Israel. The Somali terror affiliate of Al Qaeda, Al Shabab, claimed responsibility for a recent August 24, 2010 military commando style attack on the Muna Hotel in Somalia where parliamentarians were meeting, resulting in the death of 31 people.
In retrospect, it comes as little surprise that the Mumbai attacks represented an adaptation and progression of tactics which emulated components of previous attacks. The focal point of the Mumbai attacks was the Taj Hotel, in keeping with predecessor hotel bombing attacks. Borrowing from its Chechen counterparts, the Mumbai terrorists employed a commando style bloody hostage taking assault, and in keeping with Al Queda’s coordinated attack signature adapted further by undertaking coordinated attacks across 10 locations striking key response infrastructure.
There is little reason to doubt that similar plans were underway in this most recent terror plot. In terms of the future, it would seem likely that a domestic terrorist attack will be a coordinated and distributed commando style attack aimed at soft targets and possibly first responders and support response infrastructure. The likely targets appear to be schools, hotels, stadiums and high capacity facilities. Among these targets, hotels remain the most likely target because they are uniquely open to transient traffic, they house large numbers of people, and the ability to surreptitiously smuggle weapons and explosives in luggage as guest is relatively easy. Further, the rooms at the hotel become ideal operational bases from which operatives can meet, prepare and deploy to designated targets. Further, removing and transporting weapons is easy because the can be transported in innocuous looking luggage. Finally, operatives can check-in to rooms at varying intervals to appear unrelated to other conspirators and can request rooms at strategic locations where they can wire explosives and incendiary devices.
Hotels that are most a risk would appear to be larger hotel facilities which are located in metropolitan areas with more diverse populations that include Middle Eastern and African immigrant populations, so that terrorists can more easily blend in to the population. Thus, hotels in localities that serve as gateways for international air traffic like Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Washington DC, would seem to be more at risk than others. Among these, smaller cities would seem to carry a possibly higher t risk because they have less resources and security assets at their immediate disposal to combat an attack. This would make Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Miami and San Francisco possibly more attractive potential targets. This pragmatic consideration, however, may be offset by the desire to attack a more significant and symbolic city.
Among types of hotels, skyscraper style hotels would seem to be more at risk than those that are more campus oriented and have more distributed entrances and exits, because it is easier to control the entire hotel facility with many floors by controlling a ground floor with limited entrance and exits. Additionally, traditional American associated brand hotels would seem to be more likely targets because of their symbolic value.
In addition to hotels, large elementary and middle schools in metropolitan areas appear to be potential targets of concern. Generally, these facilities are not well protected against sudden commando style raids. Attacking grade school level facilities also offers terrorists distinct advantages, including a hostage population that will be unable to resist in early stages of an operation, and adults who will be over taxed in attending to children. Further, great political pressure will be placed on officials to avoid any action on the part of public safety and security forces, yet it will command and tie down considerable resources due to the nature of the event. Attacking this target in concert with others will place tremendous stress on available response resources, thus giving terrorists more opportunity to inflict large scale carnage and damage at secondary targets.
As a final note, from a historical perspective it appears that early and aggressive action on the part of security forces would appear to be appropriate. The longer that time passes, the more terrorists are able to entrench, wire explosives and prepare for an assault. In most instances of radical Islamic terrorist attacks, the record indicates it is unlikely there will be a peaceful conclusion and that negotiation merely affords terrorists time to prepare for final acts of mayhem and martyrdom.
Strong emphasis should be placed on building regional terror response teams capable of responding with military like force and special operations capabilities. Response time to the scene should be gauged in minutes, not hours or days. The sooner responding forces can insert into a scene the more they can take advantage of a chaotic and unstable environment. In order to effectively deploy these types of capabilities, tools that provide real time situational awareness are key. These tools include ensuring that advanced interoperable communications and information sharing are in place. This includes enabling communications between hostages and field level responders, sharing video and communicating across multiple responding agencies.
While we all are relieved that a serious terror plot may have been stopped, we all know this is not the last in a determined effort by increasingly worldwide fanatical terror networks to strike a devastating blow against the West.