Don't Discount the Mall
Live Your Life; Maintain Your Vigilance
By Michael Tanji | November 13, 2007
The FBI recently reported an “unsubstantiated” terrorist threat to shopping malls in the US. The report was quickly challenged by terrorism experts of various stripes as very un-al-Qaeda and unlikely to occur. As the conventional wisdom holds: al-Qaeda doesn’t do malls, it does monuments.
We might challenge the wisdom of the conventional.
Consider that just a few weeks ago suspected similarly inspired terrorists detonated a bomb at the Glorietta mall in the Philippines, killing eight and wounding almost 100. This was the second time in as many years terrorists have targeted this particular mall for attack. [Editors Note: This blast is now suspected to have been caused by a gas buildup rather than a bomb.]
There are not all that many shopping malls operating in Iraq, but terrorist in Iraq are more than willing to target the many open air markets in the country, with a bombing in Amerli this year killing 117, and a bombing in a Basra market last year killing 33. In fact, when terrorists in Iraq can’t find a sufficiently large, vulnerable and innocent assembly to attack, they’ll manufacture the appropriate conditions.
It is true that al-Qaeda – at least “core” al-Qaeda – was noted for its focus on large, spectacular attacks and the willingness to plot and plan for long periods of time before striking, but as is often pointed out, counterterrorism measures implemented since September 11th have made it more difficult to conduct such attacks or, perhaps more accurately, the time required to conduct an attack on par with 9/11 will take much longer than six years given our heightened attention to terrorism.
Unfortunately, we are not just facing al-Qaeda of old, but various al-Qaeda franchisees (of varying levels of authenticity) as well as self-radicalized groups and individuals who in varying fashions “affiliate” themselves with al-Qaeda. For such groups, which lack the resources, skills and space needed to plan massive attacks, there is almost no chance of conducting a spectacular large-scale, world-watching event, but malls, schools, churches and other “soft” targets are not only accessible, but acceptable as economic, social and religious targets.
When your weapons have to be improvised, when the components of destruction are innocuous, when your operating environment is fairly permissive, and your targets shifting their attention away from contentious world events and towards the holidays, you are operating in a target-rich environment.
To many experts malls, churches and schools are not sufficiently large, spectacular or symbolic to merit serious terrorist attention. We would argue that that sort of thinking discounts what is truly important to us as a people. We are fairly well adept at dealing with attacks and tragedies that bring down buildings or highways and impact random swaths of humanity; what we have not prepared ourselves for is a concerted attack on our weakest, our most vulnerable and our most precious. Such attacks are not rare elsewhere, but to date we have been spared such horror.
This particular innocence of ours, we must know, will not last.
The buildings we can replace, the security gaps we can close, and while every life is sacred, there is a profound difference between those who lose their lives by willingly standing in harm’s way – as this recent Veteran’s Day past reminds us - and those who have life snatched from them for no other reason than they happened to be buying a present, going to school or worshiping their God. We as a people are not prepared mentally, emotionally, socially, or governmentally for the day when iconic photos like this are taken on a Main St. USA and not a back street in Mosul, Iraq.
This is neither a call to arms or a rally to the barricades, merely an opportunity to point out that when it comes to warning about terrorism and in particular surprise attacks, experts do not have a distinguished track record. This is particularly true if they are focused on what has been done, what has been considered acceptable, and what is expected to happen.
Live your lives by all means, but maintain your vigilance as well.