Saturday, November 21, 2015

Should One Believe in the Security of Barricaded Compounds Anymore?

Another week, another news of terrorism wrecking havoc.  This time the setting is a high-end hotel frequented by high-flying foreigners in Bamako, the capital of recently politically unstable Mali.  The gunmen shot past the armed guards and front barricades of the building, taking over the building and picking off more than a dozen of foreign guests before being killed in a counter-assault by Malian and French commandos.  With the world still so focused on the aftermath of the Paris attacks, comparatively less attention has been given to Bamako, but for this attack can be more significant.

The fundamental reason for the significance of this attack is just how easily one of the Malian capital's supposedly most well-protected civilian buildings fell.  Precisely because the hotel is surrounded by walls and armed guards are foreigners so confident about staying there despite the unstable political situation outside.  These guests of obvious wealth deliberately pay good money to stay behind its heavy gates for fear of their own lives.  But a few terrorists casually proved how good security cannot be had for the best of prices in a volatile locale.

This reality have resonated with the author after his trip to Nairobi last weekend.  One destination he set foot upon was the Westgate Mall, the infamous location of a similar terrorist attack that led to more than 60 dead in 2013.  While the author cannot speak for the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako, he can assure readers that the Westgate Mall, now as it was then, offers high barricades and armed security guards, with additional armed personnel patrolling its four-story-high premises.  For the uninitiated, the building would seem pretty well-guarded.

But the problem lies outside the barricaded compound.  Despite lying in Westlands, one of Nairobi's most upmarket neighborhoods, the mall feels isolated from the general neighborhood in all its glamorously lit glory.  The streets that pass in front of the mall is narrow and devoid of streetlights.  Beyond the small parking that sit across the street from the mall, there are little signs of street life even at 7pm when the darkness of the night just sets in.  Any person can sneak up on the main building undetected at relative ease.

Honestly, this is even true during daylight hours.  Aside from a couple of nearby office buildings and large road intersection, the neighborhood is crammed with small, low-rise residential units.  These units partially interlace as they dense spread away from the mall, greatly reducing visibility for anyone standing even in front of mall barricades.  In times of attack, the guards can conceivably be harmed before they can even spot attackers with their naked eyes.  And once inside, the airily open atrium of the building would be ideal for picking off any additional obstacles to maximum damage.

It is likely that the Bamako attacks unfolded in such fashion.  In African urban areas, slum-like sprawls are never too far away the heart of the wealthiest neighborhoods.  These slums, with loose social organization, maze-like street patterns, and little police oversight, provide ideal shelters for would-be attackers before they launch into action.  The ample time they have to observe their targets from not so far away means that any precaution taken in terms of protecting the barricaded building has been well-understood before assault commences.  

Not only can high walls and security guards not deter attacks, they probably in some ways encourage suicidal fighters to take their chances.  After all, the most protected buildings naturally hold the most high-value personnel.  And killing the most high-value personnel can create the most impacting and widespread terror.  Especially in expats are present in the collateral damage, it becomes political issues in distant countries about reduction in physical presence at some of the most needy countries.  In one quick move, uncertainty is generated for hapless local government and expat community.

Every politically unstable city in the world has these barricaded areas.  It could just one isolated building, like the cases for Bamako or Nairobi, or it could be a large neighborhood like the Green Zone in Baghdad.  In essence, they are all basically awaiting break-through by terrorists smart or reckless enough to do so.  Until then, they are just illusions of peace in a conflict zone, held apart with over-inflated confidence of moneyed expats, who still refuse to acknowledge that investments in such barricaded compounds mean nothing without the root cause of violence being resolved.  

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