January 24, 2010
Terror at the Mall?
The shopping malls of America will be among the next major terrorist targets.
Malls make such obvious high-value targets that it's difficult to grasp why they haven't been hit up until now. Shopping malls are America's marketplaces, constantly packed with people, with uncontrolled entry, and openly vulnerable to any given form of attack. We need only consider the darkest days of the Iraqi terror campaign of 2006-2007 to grasp how the jihadis view marketplaces. Scarcely a week went by without another Iraqi marketplace bombing, with casualties largely consisting of women and children, mounting from the dozens to the hundreds. We need only add the fact that the mall in many ways symbolizes the United States to people across the world, acting as kind of American Horn of Plenty, to see the inevitability of the threat. Such attacks will come, and they will be ugly.
It's not as if the jihadis haven't tried. In late 2003, Nuradin Abdi, a Somali native, was arrested in Louisville, Kentucky while in the midst of plans to attack a mall in Columbus, Ohio. Abdi was closely associated with al-Qaeda member Iyman Faris, arrested for planning a bombing of the Brooklyn Bridge. (A personal side note: Two weeks after 9/11, I was in Columbus itself, speaking to acquaintances about what I'd seen in lower Manhattan. "Well, at least they'll never attack us here," one of them said. "I wouldn't be too sure of that," I told him. "If I were an educated terrorist, I'd be very interested in hitting a town called Columbus.")
Late last year, Tarek Mehanna of Sudbury, Massachusetts was arrested for, among other things, conspiring with Ahmad Abousamra and Daniel Maldonado to attack unidentified malls with automatic weapons. (Abousamra and Maldonado, who had received training in al-Qaeda camps, were evidently already in custody).
On at least two occasions in 2004 and 2007, the FBI circulated warnings of potential mall attacks during the holiday season, when they would present what is known as a "target-rich environment." The 2004 warning involved a mall in central Los Angeles, while the later incident involved malls in both L.A. and Chicago. While no attacks occurred, it remains unknown how far jihadi plans were actually taken.
In Europe, the action has been even hotter. Last week, a Palestinian named Wissam Freijeh was sentenced to ten years for shooting up a Danish mall on December 31, 2008. Freijeh's target was a kiosk selling Israeli products. Two people were injured.
So malls have definitely been on the jihadis' minds. Why no more than one-off attacks? If malls were such an obvious target, wouldn't they have been hit before this? Counter-terror specialists are convinced (as was ably expressed here by Bruce Hoffman) that after a lengthy hiatus recovering from the losses sustained during the Bush years, the jihadis have emerged with a new strategy. This could be called the "wasp" strategy, a method well-known to guerrilla fighters and special-operations forces. Rather than concentrate on massive operations of the 9/11 type, Islamist terrorists will instead carry out endless pinprick attacks, much as a swarm of wasps might harry an elephant (so okay, we'll make it a rhino), maddening the beast to a point where it finally plunges off a cliff. The Fort Hood attack, the Underwear Kid, and the Afghanistan CIA bombing act as evidence of just such a strategy. And there we might well have our answer: the jihadis may have put the malls aside to wait for a moment such as this, when a series of attacks would pay off the most.
How would such attacks occur? As with all Islamist efforts, the goal will be to account for the highest number of casualties in the most horrific manner possible. With this in mind, the first scenario that arises is the truck bomb. With their broad parking lots, enabling a vehicle to build up a high terminal velocity, and their wide glass entrances, malls almost appear to have been designed for this style of attack. The truck payload could be conventional explosives, or in the case of a stolen tanker truck, a supernapalm mixture. (Some readers have understandably protested over my providing the actual formula for supernapalm the last time I dealt with the topic, so we'll elide that this time.) In either case, the casualty level would be appalling, the images horrifying, and the impact impossible to negate. While some malls and shopping complexes have blocked their entrances with concrete barriers or planters, many others have ignored this cheap and simple safeguard. All such establishments should be encouraged to emplace such obstacles as soon as possible.
A secondary threat is the bomb vest, which we most recently saw deployed against a CIA unit in Afghanistan. While not as destructive as the vehicle bomb, the bomb vest has probably claimed more victims overall. It was a favored weapon for striking the markets of Iraq, and as the CIA assassination clearly reveals, it remains extremely effective. Countermeasures could be difficult. In Iraq, the jihadis showed no hesitation in utilizing small children, the retarded, and even animals in carrying out bomb attacks. A coatroom in which heavy coats and other items could be checked could aid in curtailing such attacks. But this leaves us with the problem of large handbags, baby carriages, and packages. Eventually, it may be necessary to adopt the Israeli practice of bag searches and metal detectors.
A related method would involve nerve gas, as successfully used by the Aum Shinryko cult to strike the Tokyo subway system in 1995. The Tokyo attacks killed twelve people and wounded several dozen others. A supply of atropine injectors, the standard first aid for nerve-gas poisoning, should be stored in each mall's pharmacy or medical clinic -- no rarity today in malls across the country.
Finally, we reach the trusty firearm, the easiest threat to smuggle in, and in some ways the hardest to deal with. Mall security is almost exclusively unarmed, with little training in dealing with firearm threats. While some large malls feature police substations, most rely on a warning system to call in the police in the event of an emergency. A well-armed jihadi death squad could cause considerable loss of life before local police could respond, and they might conceivably escape to strike elsewhere. Perhaps the most effective tactic would be to come in through one entrance, race through the mall firing at all available targets, and exit through another entrance where a car or van would be waiting with engine running. It's difficult to see how any official countermeasure short of a police tactical squad could handle this type of attack.
What defensive measures have been taken by mall operators? Apart from the previously mentioned entrance barriers, next to nothing. Security experts have suggested a number of cheap countermeasures, such as utilizing transparent trash buckets to prevent use by bombers, but in large part, these have not been taken up. The general response of owners and operators has been a claim that "no credible threat" to malls has been demonstrated, much the same attitude that preceded the 9/11 attack, but with much less in the way of excuse.
No small number of malls have gone out of their way to increase their vulnerability through participation in the "gun-free zone" movement. In 1990, Congress, in what many observers consider to have been an incremental attempt at a national firearms ban, passed a "Gun Free School Zones" act as part of that year's Crime Control bill. The law forbade ownership or possession of a firearm, apart from strictly limited conditions, anywhere within a thousand feet of a school or related institution. The attempt was ill-fated, being overturned by the Supreme Court and then reinstated in a thoroughly unenforceable form.
Congressional meddling triggered a kind of low-key craze among schools and other institutions -- including malls -- in which administrations eagerly adapted the "gun-free" pledge, often ostentatiously announcing it with signs containing menacing threats against anyone caught with a gun.
As a result, school shootings, a rarity prior to the '90s, became a commonplace. "Gun-free zones" served to attract armed loons the way that honey attracts bears. Firearms-affairs specialist John R. Lott, Jr. has gone on record to state that every major recent shooting has occurred in a declared gun-free area. This includes Virginia Tech, where in September 2007 an insane undergraduate murdered over thirty students.
Malls have not been immune. Mall shootings, unheard of before the "gun-free" movement, are today no rarity. They have occurred in recent years at Kingston, N.Y.; Tacoma, Washington; Kansas City, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; and Salt Lake City, Utah. In each case, the "gun-free" policy was in place and widely advertised.
We can assume that jihadi terrorists are as well-informed as the average American psychotic. "Gun-free" malls are simply informing our enemies where the easiest targets can be found. These malls will be the first ones hit.
As is often the case with the P.C. crowd, the exact opposite action would produce the desired results. In the Salt Lake City incident of February 12, 2007, a gunman entered the mall with the intention of shooting shoppers at random. Fortunately, an off-duty policeman, Keith Hammond, had also disobeyed the anti-gun admonition. The shooter had already shot nine and killed five when Hammond brought him under fire and held him at bay until responding officers ended the attack by killing the gunman.
Salt Lake City reveals the solution to the mall terror problem. It is clear that the best method of negating the threat would be to enlist customers themselves in defending and protecting their malls. Operators and owners should meet with qualified locals -- ex-police officers and soldiers in particular -- to set up an armed patrol system. Local police cooperation would be necessary to assure proper training and liaison. The goal would be to have one or more patrols present at all times during opening hours. A communications system could be established (no real challenge in the age of the cell phone), both to assure regular contact and to alert members of potential threats. Regular mall security would continue handling everyday problems. By such a means we could avoid a terror-related Virginia Tech, Salt Lake City, or, for that matter, Fort Hood.
Another possibility would be to organize and train mall workers who own guns, assuring that their firearms would be available at work in case of an emergency. While many retail franchises and chains have strict rules against interfering with criminal activities (workers are supposed to wait for the cops), certainly this should be set aside in dealing with terror attempts.
There's little hope of such concepts being put into effect under prevailing conditions. Experience teaches us that P.C. notions of the "gun-free" variety are the hardest weeds to dig up once they've taken root. But it is undeniable that the "bureaucratic" strategy of meeting the terror threat -- Homeland Defense, a centralized National Intelligence Directorate, and so forth -- has proven to be an abject failure. The latest attacks over Detroit, at Fort Hood, and in Afghanistan occurred because the oversized bureaucracies had been put in place, creating a system of endless filters to prevent urgent and necessary information from getting where it was needed. The federal government has merely provided a larger rhino to be stung by jihadi attacks.
On the other hand, all three failed airliner attacks were prevented by the passengers themselves, with no help from air marshals, anti-terror specialists, or Homeland Security bureaucrats. (We're counting Flight 93 here as a defeat for terror -- the attack was curtailed, even though the heroic passengers lost their lives doing it.) In the end, it's the individuals on the spot who make the difference. Even the hapless Janet Napolitano has admitted that passengers comprise the last line of defense.
To combat a swarm of wasps, you don't call up a herd of rhinos. You gather a lot of people with rolled-up newspapers. At this point, our efforts against terror are reactive -- we may well have to endure a mall attack, with casualties possibly reaching the hundreds, before the federal government is forced to rethink its approach. When the time comes, the alternative strategy must be considered. With the American people, this country has a resource unparalleled across the wide world. It's about time we put it to use.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker.