Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 24, 2013

Ten signs the U.S. is overreacting to the Nairobi Mall attack

Filed under: Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Christopher Bellavita on September 24, 2013

I asked a few dozen homeland security colleagues  to describe what they’d have to see before concluding the country was overreacting to the Nairobi mall attack.

In no particular order, here is a summary of what they told me:

1. Hardening of malls and related soft sites (Apple Stores, Best Buy, etc.) This includes — just in time for Christmas — checkpoints at malls, and random bag checks conducted by law enforcement, contract security or Department of Homeland Security personnel.

2. An increase in uniformed on duty and off duty police officers walking around malls with no clear mission, but costing a ton of money.

3. Security personnel carrying military-style weapons in and around malls.

4. Increased use of secured parking lots, including recording who comes into the mall in each vehicle, who leaves in that vehicle, and who doesn’t.

5. More mall video surveillance, increasing opportunities to record people making mistakes.

6. Expanded use of stop and frisk policy, especially directed toward people who (how shall we say) don’t seem to belong in a particular mall.

7. Spike in “see something – say something” phone calls, particularly reports about seeing “Somalian-looking” young black males.

8. Expansion beyond NFL stadiums of the Mandatory Clear Bag Rule.

9. Fewer people shopping in malls. More people using Amazon.

10. In addition to providing hand sanitizer wipes at mall entrances, high end malls will offer a bullet proof vest option — just in case.


Last week it was the Navy Yard shooting. This week it’s the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.

Last week it was a single gunman. This week it’s a terrorist group.

A decade ago William Crowe  warned “the real danger lies not with what the terrorists can do to us, but what we can do to ourselves when we are spooked.”

Is America spooked yet?

Not yet.  But it’s getting there.

Here are some media observations.

  • “The deadly assault on a luxury Nairobi mall Saturday has sent shock waves around the world, raising concerns about security at shopping centers amid fears of copycat violence or other terror attacks, according to industry officials and other experts,”writes Daniel Arkin


  • Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, said [in the same article] “officials may … increase the police presence at many shopping complexes by enlisting off-duty officers to stand guard and defend against incursions….”


  • “The deadly attack on a high-end Nairobi shopping mall on Saturday put the safety of malls around the world into the spotlight and could trigger moves to improve security and make it more visible,” write Ilaina Jonas and Mark Hosenball for Reuters


  • It’s hard to imagine a softer target than an enclosed, easy-to-enter space with large numbers of civilians, many of them children or elderly, milling about with no authority clearly in charge, says CNN’s David Simpson.  And the Al-Shabaab terrorist group that carried out this weekend’s mall attack in Kenya is known to have recruited in the United States. If you connect those dots, you get the kind of scenario that “keeps us up at night,” as a federal law enforcement source told CNN…: an attack at a shopping mall in the United States.

Crowe’s Law: “[The] real danger lies not with what the terrorists can do to us, but what we can do to ourselves when we are spooked.”

  • “The worst case scenario is a bunch of these [Al-Shabaab] kids coming back, buying weapons in the United States some place like Minneapolis or Chicago and going after one of our malls here,” … CNN’s national security analyst, said Sunday.  “They are indefensible especially with a well-trained group. There’s nothing you can do about it. And I guarantee you that the FBI is going to be on it today.”


Malls have not ignored security in the post 9/11 world.  The Nairobi attack will spur a renewed look at security and training.

But the attack does not automatically mean the militarization of shopping.

An International Council of Shopping Centers spokesman noted “mall proprietors will be careful to take their cues from consumers, who may already be weary from boosted security at airports.” 

A law enforcement analyst for CNN said “For the average American citizen, you go to the grocery store, you go to the gas station, you go to the shopping mall, and you go to a movie theater. You take walks in your neighborhood…. Anyone of those situations could make you vulnerable if other people or another person is out there determined to conduct an attack.”

And from the security director of the Mall of America: “I think that if you’re looking for a hundred percent safety, you should probably wrap yourself in bubble wrap and never leave home.”


But what if?

What if terrorists — as opposed to a lone gunman — do strike an American mall?

Politics, experts and I-told-you-so’s will fill the information mushroom cloud.

But the Market State will tell its own story, in the case of Nairobi treating the 62 dead and 175 injured as unfortunate but inevitable rounding errors in the eternal quest for resource optimization .

“[The] country is unlikely to see long-term investors pull money out after the deadly attack on a Nairobi shopping mall, analysts say.

“It will hit investor confidence but having said that the areas which are most likely to be impacted are tourism and in the shorter-term consumer goods,” said … a portfolio manager of African equity portfolios at Investec Asset Management in Cape Town.

“People are likely to stay away from the malls for a week or two, but the long-term structural story – the growth, regional integration, political achievements – investors recognize those and an event like this is unlikely to change those views.”….

“Insecurity will remain a key business risk in Kenya. That being said, business will likely get back to normal in a relatively short period as Kenyans have become accustomed to attacks,” risk consultancy Eurasia Group said in a note.

“Some near-term business interruptions and losses are a given, but a sustained economic shock is unlikely. “


The real danger lies not with what the terrorists can do to us,  Admiral Crowe warned,  but what we can do to ourselves when we are spooked.


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Comment by Donald Quixote

September 24, 2013 @ 9:34 am

Well said. The question continues – will an attack that costs so little in financial and human investment result in a reaction that costs so much in resources, freedom and peace of mind. Unfortunately, the return on investment is enormous for the other side. Is it possible to openly discuss the return on investment on our side to fend off this threat that may never occur (but surely appears overdue)? Admiral Crowe is a wise man.

Comment by William R. Cumming

September 24, 2013 @ 10:26 am

Nice post Chris! Thanks for asking. I shop largely online and have not been in an enclosed shopping mall for over 5 years. Even declined a trip to Mall of America in Minneapolis when visiting in summer 2012!

Apparently over 95% if all rent-a-cops carry weapons for which they have never qualified for safety and use. Is that an HS problem?

Comment by JD

September 25, 2013 @ 9:26 am

As Professor Mueller commented last year… “never have so few been able to frighten so many.”


That said, I was down near the DC Navy Yard two days after the shooting there. Folks had returned to the ballpark. A small memorial had taken shape. One man held a Nat’s cap in one hand an a rosary in his other and prayed. The rest walked from the parking lot to the stadium and back. We have learned how this script works. Perhaps it is a sign of resilience. Hopefully not a sign of desensitization. Maybe both.

Of course, the security folks we’ve spun up over the past decade need to do something, so when they see the news on Kenya they react, with no sense of how liberty should be included in the risk calculation. That’s homeland security in its current state. We haven’t moved passed the guards, guns, and gates approach yet.

Comment by JCOMISKEY

September 25, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

Questionable happy medium

Should government and now mall owners/operators tell us to just go shopping and suffer more lampooning?

Or should security increase?

A good question might be to ask some of the people in the pictures in D.C. and Nairobi.

Imagine being anywhere where people are shooting a lot of people.

In the event that you survive, the police and/or security comes and orders you to walk briskly, put your hands up, and not to use your phone.

IMHO, active shooter training will increase for law enforcement and private security ….and citizens.

Did someone say Happy Black Friday!

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