Gleaming icons of wealth, chock-full of extravagance and often teeming with innocents, shopping malls – like big hotels – are archetypal soft targets in the grim lexicon of modern terrorism.
From Kabul to Moscow, and Columbus, Ohio, to Nairobi, terrorists have targeted crowds of shoppers, including women and children, in almost-impossible-to-protect shopping malls.
The week’s still-unfolding carnage inside Nairobi’s Westgate mall is the kind of event that has been long feared as extremists evolve new tactics, cross-pollinating from viciously successful strikes in other places by other groups.
At Westgate, despite the horror, neither the targeting nor the strike force of attackers is especially new or came as a surprise. Terrorism experts have been warning for years that malls are vulnerable, as “harder” targets – embassies, aircraft, military bases and government buildings – become ever more heavily protected behind security cordons.
Some malls, as well as prominent hotels or well-known resorts, are in high-profile locations, full of constantly changing clientele and thus exceeding difficult to secure.
Like the multiple strikes in the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008 by groups of heavily armed and suicide-ready Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists, the Westgate mall attack by the Somali al-Shabab terror group appears to involve a squad of well-trained extremists seeking to kill and main as many victims as possible before staging a bloody last stand with hostages.
More than 160 were killed in Mumbai across 12 targets, but international media focus was on the high-profile Oberoi and Taj Mahal hotels – just as it is this week on Nairobi’s upscale mall, where the mounting death toll includes prominent Kenyans as well as foreign diplomats, well-heeled visitors and children.
“Individuals desiring to launch a terrorist attack seek to strike the highest-profile, most symbolic target possible,” Scott Stewart, vice-president of analysis at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence firm, wrote this year. A “well known … targets can magnify the terror, especially when the operation grabs the attention of international media.”
After years of ever-closer ties, al-Shabab formally allied itself with al-Qaeda in 2012, pledging to “march with you as loyal soldiers,” Daniel Byman, who tracks extremist groups at the Brookings Institution, said in a report last year. Those closer ties included advanced training in explosives and weapons, which seem to be on grim display this week.
But turning to “soft targets” is often regarded as evidence of weakness in extremist groups.
After more than a decade of U.S.-led anti-terrorism efforts, including hundreds of targeted killings by missile-firing drones, some analysts believe the capacity of extremist groups – including al-Shabab in Somalia – to plan, finance, stage and conduct attacks against tougher targets has been significantly degraded.
Targeting shopping complexes is not new for terrorists, not least because they are relatively easy to infiltrate and offer concentrations of usually defenceless victims.
In 2003, a nascent plot by a Somali extremist with links to al-Qaeda to blow up a mall in Columbus, Ohio, was thwarted at an early stage.
The following year and again in 2007, the FBI issued warnings that mall attacks were planned, apparently based on extremist communications intercepted by U.S. spy agencies.
Although there have been massacres by lone gunmen in American malls, no successful terrorist attacks occurred.
That’s not the case elsewhere.
In 1999, a bomb ripped through the Manezh mall close to the Kremlin in Moscow, killing one and injuring scores. Three years later, a bomb blast in the Myyrmanni mall on the outskirts of Helsinki killed seven, including the suspected bomber, and injured more than 160.
Israeli malls, where tight security is the norm, have been repeatedly targeted and occasionally attacked.
This month, Israeli security forces said they had foiled a plot to bomb Jerusalem’s Mamilla mall. In Kabul, Taliban fighters have attacked malls several times.
Malls in North America, often surrounded by vast parking lots offering easy access to even heavy vehicles that could be turned into truck bombs, are especially vulnerable, say security experts. Just as lone gunmen have managed to kill large numbers at schools, a movie theatre and even a supposedly secure navy base in downtown Washington in recent years, the prospect of heavily armed extremists seizing a mall with hundreds inside could redefine terror in North America.
“A single suicide bomber in a shopping centre in Topeka, or a single bomb-carrying car rammed into a movie complex in Omaha, could bring the nation to its psychic knees,” Clark Kent Ervin, director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program, wrote in his book, Open Target: Where America is Vulnerable to Attack.
“Adding to the appeal such scenarios hold for terrorists is the reality that precious little can be done to prevent them in a society like ours.”