Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Security Lessons from Westgate Attack

As gory details of massacre at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall conducted by Somalia’s Jehadist group Al-Shabab become clearer, vulnerability of neighborhood shopping centers to such carnage is more apparent than ever before.

Terrorist attack at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall repeats some lessons which 26/11 Mumbai attacks taught us for the first time but which are still to be fully assimilated by our security establishment.

We may sharpen the preventive capabilities of our intelligence agencies to best possible limits but still terrorists will be having one in a hundred chance. Even target hardening has its limitations in view of crystallizing patterns of trans-national urban terrorism. After Parliament attack in 2001, most of the terrorist attacks in Indian hinterland came against “soft targets”. In this vast nation it is impossible to guard each and every public place.

Most of the major shopping centers today have a security drill designed to stop plantation of explosives. Private security agencies guarding these establishments as well as local policemen are ill-trained and ill-equipped to deal with highly-trained gunmen attacks like those we witnessed on 26/11 and just a few days back in Nairobi.

In event of such attacks effectively engaging the gunmen within first hour of attack is essential to minimize the loss of life and property. This role essentially falls upon local Police force which is obviously the first one to reach the spot. Special counter-terrorism battalions like National Security Guards (NSG) come into the picture at a later stage.

Afghan cities like Kabul face many attacks like 26/11 and Westgate attack every year. But Afghan security forces have been successful in minimizing the civilian casualties in such attacks due to their ability to efficaciously engage the attackers at the outset of attack which leaves them with little time to cause civilian deaths and hostage taking.

State Police forces in India need to rise up to the challenges urban terrorism is posing. A compact Quick Reaction Team (QRT), well-trained and well-equipped to deal with such attacks should be deployed at every major urban centre so that attackers may be engaged and cornered quickly. In absence of such provisioning we remain vulnerable to a Westgate Mall type of carnage.

What transpired in cyber-space during Westgate mall seize also leaves us with clues to social media management in times of crisis like these and how alert netizens can play a very important role. As Al-Shabab started to live tweet the details of horrible selective massacre its operatives were conducting at Westgate Mall, alert Kenyan twitter users started reporting this to twitter administration which blocked Al-Shabab every time it came up with a new account. Four accounts of Al-Shabab were blocked during first 24 hours of the attack and two more were blocked in following days.

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