As recently as a week ago, Fox News reported that intelligence obtained in Somalia pointed to a potential Mumbai style plot aimed at a luxury hotel in London. Earlier in May, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior Al-Qaeda leader threatened Mumbai style attacks on Europe, as reported by The Sun, a U.K. based newspaper. Overall, the gestalt of the Islamic inspired terror network seems to be shifting towards this style of attack.
As noted in past analysis, hotels, particularly luxury-style international hotels, are attractive targets. This is because of their symbolic representation as centers of western business and commercial interests, more affluent clientele and high value targets are present, and there is a cross section of various nationalities and religions peaceably coexisting in contravention of extremist ideals. Most significantly, hotels are soft targets.
For all intents and purposes, hotels have no effective means of resisting or thwarting an armed assault. Further, hotels can be easily surveilled and penetrated, because they are generally open to the public and there are transient visitors. Militants can pose as guests with a minimum of suspicion, especially in international hotel venues where peoples of diverse origin are present. Finally, smuggling weapons into hotels is a low risk exercise because weapons can be concealed wiithin baggage without arousing suspicion, and groups can quietly build by staggering their check-ins, concealing their association.
In terms of high impact and low personnel requirements, hotels offer themselves up as good targets as well. Hotels house large numbers of guests that are generally confined to floors with a limited numbers of exits and common egress stairwells. By controlling lower level floors, entire facilities can be effectively controlled with a limited number of militant personnel. Effective control can further be projected by detonating bombs or starting fires and maintaining fire zones at main doorways and entrances covered by shooters. Once control of the premises is achieved, members of the terrorist team are set up to sweep from the bottom to the top of the hotel facility executing guests, taking hostages and/or planting explosives.
Once physical control over the facility and hotel guests is established, the terror group has achieved a position of strength. Efforts to dislodge hostile operators by direct assault become a high risk operation due to concerns about potential collateral losses, the use of human shields, and/or triggering a preplanned mass killing event. This psychological advantage is likely to be more effective in Western countries where both real time news coverage and more open government create intense political pressures not to place hostages and victims at further risk. This situation also plays into the hands of the terrorists by providing a global stage for protracted hysteria and attention.
In both the Mumbai attack and Kabul Hotel attacks, the terrorists were wearing suicide vests and were operating to inflict maximum loss of life. Looking at other prototypical terror attacks such as the Beslan School incident and Moscow Theater attack, Islamic militants also intended to ultimately kill as many hostages as possible. Once they consolidated hostage groups, they extensively wired explosives in holding areas and detonated them.
These behaviors speak to the need for Western police and anti-terror units to quickly respond to any attack and actively engage hostile actors to deny them the ability to establish control over the facility and interrupt or delay planned operations that can further entrench their position and/or gain mass killing opportunities. With regard to hotel facilities, it is nearly impossible to adequately secure these venues. Attentiveness on the part of Hotel personnel in identifying suspicious actors is essential. Hotel personnel must be capable of identifying anomalies such as unusual numbers of younger single men originating from suspect destinations checking in with overlapping stay dates. Persons who are overly protective of their baggage and refuse to allow others near it may be a sign of unusual activity. Persons that are evasive as to the purpose of their stay, that are secretive or avoid public interaction may be a sign of suspect activity.
In addition to being alert, hotels must improve response coordination capabilities with law enforcement. In cases of an emergency, a rapid response aided by real time situational information that can assist a quick reaction force in effectively engaging and contesting militants. Allowing police to view the interior of the hotel through the sharing of security camera feeds would provide a tactical edge over the militants by enabling responders to identify militants, their positions and weaponry, command elements and monitor movements. Similarly enabling direct communication between on-scene responders and hotel staff and guests via cell phones, mobile chat, and even streaming video from smart phones, provides additional “eyes on” capability and situational awareness that can provide responders with a lifesaving edge.
The threat posed by this new mode of terror attack is not insignificant and offers many challenges to homeland security and public safety agencies. While we hope plots can continue to be successfully detected and thwarted before they become real operational threats, we must be prepared to handle and respond to a commando style terror attack. Hotels can be better prepared for these security risk scenarios and should invest in concealed video monitoring systems, interoperable communications and video sharing capabilities so they are equipped to give responders the information they need should the quite thinkable occur.