Recent attacks across Africa and North Africa in 2015-2016 have clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of hotels – especially in developing countries – to low tech attacks. While hotel security in higher risk locations has long focused on the potential threat from vehicle-borne improvised explosive (VBIED) attacks such as have occurred in Jakarta, Islamabad and numerous other locations it is now becoming very apparent that bad actors no longer need to have technical bomb-making skills to carry out an effective attack. Recent attacks in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast have demonstrated the effectiveness that a small number of militants – in some cases only two or three – with light weapons can have in wreaking death and destruction.
It’s not only hotels of course but other target- rich environments. We have seen this in Mumbai in 2008, in the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya, the museum attack in Tunisia and numerous others. It’s not only in developing countries too as was demonstrated in the horrific attacks in Paris in November 2015, although developing countries have increased vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities include frequently being in closer physical proximity to conflict zones and areas where the militants are based thereby increasing familiarity and support networks and easing logistical constraints and weaker capabilities in the host nation’s security forces. In the Mumbai attacks, the Westgate Mall, the Radisson Hotel attack in Bamako and the Burkina Faso attack in particular we witnessed slow and poor response from local security forces. Both Mumbai and Westgate went on for days before being resolved.
What should travelers do to reduce the risk when staying in hotels and visiting soft target locations like malls, restaurants, cafes, etc.?
- Be familiar or become familiar with the venue. Know where the exits are located and how to get to them quickly if necessary.
- Be situationally aware. Be aware of your surroundings and know what is going on. Watch for changes in your environment. Don’t look to rationalize or explain away unusual events. It has been anecdotally reported that in one of the attacks, diners heard gunshots and left the table. There was a lull in the firing and local staff at the hotel advised them everything was okay, stating that one of the security guards fired his weapon in the air to deter trespassers. They returned to their meals and the attack resumed.
- Understand and practice basic active shooter response protocols which are very applicable in these situations. “Run, Hide, Fight” or whatever terminology you prefer (Escape, Cover, Resist) is a very simple but useful way of looking at your response options.
In brief – if a situation is unfolding and you can safely get out of the affected area then act quickly and do it. If you cannot safely escape then seek cover and/or concealment (ideally both) and shelter in place. If neither of these options are available or if you are discovered in the location where you are sheltering your only option is to fight back aggressively and violently against your attacker(s). While far from a perfect solution, at least it gives you a formula for action as opposed to freezing in place and becoming a victim.