Photo of a view of Nairobi courtesy of Wikimedia
"The attack in Nairobi underscores al-Shabaab's organizational skills and commitment to die for a cause," former U.S. Ambassador David Shinn said earlier this week.
That holds true for the attacks in Mumbai, similar attacks by Chechen terrorists and al-Qaeda linked groups or looking even further back, the Munich Olympics. These types of attacks are not new. Yet the response to it has and should change in order to meet this consistent and evolving threat.
On Sept. 21 at noon in Nairobi, Kenya, 10 to 15 heavily armed terrorists rode to the high-end Westgate shopping mall on motorcycles. Using shoulder-fired weapons, explosives and small-unit tactics on this soft target, their goal was to kill and capture as many innocent people as possible.
This terrorist operation was allegedly in retribution for Kenyan military support of the Somali government during their battle with radical Islamic forces. An eyewitness told media outlets that the terrorists yelled to the Muslims to leave the area while targeting foreigners and white people to kill and take hostage. This international terrorist hit team appears to have the full support of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
If the terrorists followed a Mumbai-style assault plan, they would have split into fire teams and assaulted the mall from different directions and locations. This type of brazen and violent attack forces responding agencies to split personnel to try to engage and manage multiple threats over a wide area. It's a divide-and-conquer tactic with the goal of killing that essentially forces responding units to spread out so they're off balance and unable to focus unified resources on one specific problem. Think of it this way. If you have only one tactical team and there are four firefights, how do you decide where to send them?
An agency must prepare for this type of attack by ensuring all of its personnel are trained in small-unit tactics and equipped with patrol rifles and other gear suitable to address a large scale, multi-pronged and prolonged assault.
Agencies shouldn't be shy about asking for help. Many localities have part-time tactical teams or small departments who will become extremely tasked responding to this attack. It's a team effort requiring commanders to call in reinforcements ASAP, especially professional tactical teams. A mutual-aid response plan can also be a critical component to winning.
As a case in point, the Israeli Special Forces are on the ground in Kenya fighting the fight with the Kenyans due to a little know mutual-aid agreement. Thanks to that agreement, the Kenyans got some of the world's best anti-terror teams into the field rapidly.
This is about taking the fight to the enemy, knocking them off-balance, re-directing their focus, and keeping them from taking time to harden up or control an incident.
Trying to command or control all things in an attack of this nature would be fruitless. That's why personnel should be trained in small-unit tactics, allowing them to make on-scene strategic and tactical decisions.
That capability to quickly adapt and adjust could spell the difference between success and failure. This is no time for micro management. Individual teams must know, appreciate and understand that in answering this call, they are self-reliant and must be able to address this situation however they deem fit to stop the deadly threat.
A city or town facing this type of threat needs an all-in approach, meaning its law enforcement personnel need access to every asset in a city or locality. This includes traditional fire and EMS, as well as non-traditional assets such as water, power, sewer, and garbage. These resources need to be on speed dial and ready to answer responding units.
Since these attacks seek to maximize death and destruction, handling the aftermath is crucial. Without coordination, responding units may trip over each other and impede triaging. The responding medical units need a pre-plan of where they will stage. They must also understand how they can enter a hot zone to render aid. They may need to help people while the fight continues and should be ready to implement tactical medical procedures (TEMS) with trained medics.
Undoubtedly, the injuries will surpass the capability of standard EMS and doctor-level care. That one factor of having doctors at the scene, made the difference between life and death at the Boston Marathon bombing. Integrating doctors into a terrorist mass casualty response should become part of all EMS plans.
These types of attacks illustrate the pattern that terrorists are committed to inflicting death and destruction anywhere to generate headlines and rally other lunatics to their cause. They are prepared to do anything to win. That means killing as many people as possible to garner more news coverage.
While that purpose is incomprehensible to most sensible people, we must remember the terrorist's background and mindset when preparing to answer these calls. You aren't responding to a gang shooting. The terrorists are ready to win at all costs. An important question for any law enforcement officer remains. Are you ready?
Donald Mihalek is a federal officer with more than 20 years military and law enforcement service.