Over the past 15 years, nearly every mass casualty attack in Africa and Asia has included assaults on hotels.
In 2019, high-profile attacks like those seen in Sri Lanka where three 5-star hotels (the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand Hotel, and the Kingsbury) were struck on Easter day, and the January assault on the DusitD2 in Nairobi, have highlighted the threat facing hotels.
Hotels have long been primary targets because they are hubs for westerners, providing attackers with both a concentration of valuable targets as well as a symbolic win. According to many experts like Bob Howell from the risk management firm WorldAware, threats to hotels are likely to increase in the near future as violent groups look to emulate the success of militants like al-Shabaab in Africa.
Given the rising risk to hotels, security managers face a set of challenges and questions.
First is what are the threats that they need to prepare themselves for in terms of violent tactics that militants are likely to employ. Second are the tools and tactics that will help them to mitigate risks without turning themselves into a bunker.
Understanding the Anatomy of an Attack
More often than not, attacks on hotels begin with a boom.
In most modern attacks by insurgents and terrorists against hotels, the first act of the assault is usually preceded by an explosion, carried out either by a suicide bomber or with a car bomb, also commonly referred to as a Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device (VBIED).
This type of tactic has become standard because it gives them the advantage of the element of surprise, punching a hole through the defender’s perimeter from which to continue their breach and assault.
VBIEDs are extremely popular for use in attacks because they are inconspicuous and deadly. Capable of hiding in plain sight until the moment that they are either inspected or explode. A report from the Department of Homeland Security notes that they can carry between 500 to 10,000 lbs of explosive materials and can be used as part of the shrapnel for the attack.
Contrast this with 20lbs that a human can carry, and we understand how much damage one of these vehicle attacks can cause.
After the initial blast has created a breach in the perimeter, knocking out security personnel and causing chaos, the rest of the attackers are able to continue their assault on the building. This usually entails assailants entering with assault weapons and attempting to kill as many as possible before they are confronted by security services.
In another scenario where the vehicle is able to approach the building, it can either attempt to ram into the entrance or reach an underground parking lot where in either case, it could cause serious damage not only to the people inside the hotel but to the structure itself.
Best Practices and Technologies for Preventing VBIED Attacks
Attacks like these can lead to significant casualties, as we have seen from the past year’s incidents of violence. As such, hotel security managers need to put in place technical measures and practices that will mitigate their risk in the event of an assault.
We have pulled together a couple of important tips and solutions to help hotel security managers better plan for how to deal with the threat of VBIEDs.
The first step that security managers should think about is keeping vehicles at a distance from the hotel structure, allowing access only to authorized vehicles. In practical terms, it means placing the hotel back from the road within reason. In urban environments, this can be more difficult to achieve, but efforts must be taken to create space between the street and the building.
If a VBIED does detonate, then we hope that it will be as far away from our building as possible, so keeping out of the blast radius is critical.
The best way to stay out of harm’s way is to limit the attacker’s ability to reach your building. We recommend installing barriers and embrace creative landscaping to create a perimeter and restrict access. Barriers and gates should be reinforced to the point that they cannot be easily rammed through.
Threat models may vary, impacting the level of protection that is needed. However bollards, which can be both aesthetic and effective, should be a must. Retractable models that lower into the ground to allow authorized access may be a good solution for flexibility of movement along with classic concrete barriers.
Large rocks that blend in with the landscape can also provide an answer for establishments that seek security without the look and feel of a bunker.
Restricting access to vehicles is not always an option since guests being dropped off will want to reach the entrance. Additionally, delivery and other service vehicles will also need to have access to the building.
The solution here is to put in place a system for searching and scanning vehicles to identify dangerous items like explosives or weapons before they are allowed through the perimeter.
It is important to employ methods that are fast and effective not only for the guests’ convenience but because a bottleneck at the gate can expose those waiting to be checked to harm from attackers. Guards do not need to unpack a vehicle and inspect it like a fruit truck going through border control in order to be effective. However, they should be able to look inside and determine that there are no items such as gas canisters or other obvious large objects that could be used as part of an IED.
When it comes to looking beneath the vehicle, legacy methods like mirrors and just getting down on the ground lack real visibility and are generally ineffective. Under vehicle scanners are a fast and discreet solution for inspecting vehicles. Utilizing computer vision and deep learning, they are able to scan, detect, and alert on potential threats in a matter of seconds to allow security personnel to quickly wave through traffic without compromising on their security standards.
Hotel security managers walk a line that can be difficult to balance.
On the one hand, their mission is to open their doors to guests, presenting a welcoming face and not one of suspicion. Guests expect comfort and a high level of privacy.
At the same time, hotel security managers have a responsibility to keep their guests safe from harm, including from dangers that are likely to target them due to their symbolism and opportunity of attack.
As violent groups like ISIS and others continue to lose ground, we assess that they will likely seek to continue their attacks through affiliated groups that have been inspired by their ideology against western targets within areas that they are already operating in.
In order to mitigate this threat, it is up to security managers to properly assess their risk level, train their teams to implement best practices, and put in place the necessary systems and assets to ensure the safety of their guests.