Nairobi attack may trigger tighter security at malls worldwide

Mon Sep 23, 2013 10:25am IST

A Kenyan army soldier takes cover behind a wall at Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Noor Khamis

A Kenyan army soldier takes cover behind a wall at Westgate Shopping Centre in Nairobi September 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Noor Khamis

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REUTERS - 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.

"They're obviously going to ramp up security," said Malachy Kavanagh, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers, a U.S.-based trade group of mall and shopping center owners, adding that he expected the U.S. government's Department of Homeland Security to reach out to the heads of corporate security for all American malls following the events in Kenya.

Some of the changes that may be made include bringing in off-duty police officers into the mall, putting more non-uniformed security officers into uniform, and more closely coordinating with local police departments.

Islamist militants were holding hostages on Sunday at a shopping mall in Nairobi, where at least 68 people were killed and 175 wounded in an attack by Somalia's al Shabaab group. Those killed included Kenyans, Dutch, British and Chinese citizens and diplomats from Canada and Ghana. Some U.S. citizens were wounded, though the final toll is still far from clear.

The Westgate mall has several Israeli-owned outlets and is frequented by prosperous Kenyans and foreigners.

"Shopping centres and retailers will have to spend more money on security," Irwin Barkan, CEO of African mall developer BGI LLC, said in a phone interview from Ghana where he is based. BGI, based in the U.S., is developing properties in West Africa.

"I hope it doesn't get to the point where it is like getting into an airport," Barkan said ahead of a trip to Nairobi for the African Hotel Investment Forum this week.

Kavanagh said that U.S. shoppers have indicated they do not want to go through this type of security line with metal detectors and other security machines.

Following the attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001, the trade group surveyed mall shoppers about their views on such ideas. "Unless there was an immediate threat, by and large they said 'no'," he said.

FEAR OF IMITATORS

U.S. counter-terrorism officials and experts have privately expressed worries for years - since even before the September 11, 2001 attacks - that U.S. shopping malls and other public spaces, including public transport systems, were vulnerable to attacks.

Juan Zarate, a former White House counter-terrorism advisor and author of "Treasury's War", a new book on the subject, told Reuters that one of the major concerns for counter-terrorism officials is that there could be imitators of this type of "soft target" attack.

"Like the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, terrorist cells are learning that they can have strategic impact with dramatic terror focused on soft targets having significant psychological and economic effects," Zarate said.

In November 2008, 10 gunmen went on a three-day killing spree in Mumbai, attacking two luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish center, among other places in the Indian city.

In the United States, a source at one of the biggest mall owners said that the company is constantly focused on safety and security, not just after events such as the one in Kenya. The source said that shoppers can see some elements of security, while others are not visible.

Dan Jasper, a spokesman for Mall of America, a large private mall in Bloomington, Minnesota, said in a statement that "We constantly monitor events and adjust plans accordingly. The safety and security of our guests remains a top priority."

Westfield America declined comment, saying that it does not comment on security. Australia's Westfield Group (WDC.AX) owns nearly 100 shopping centers in Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the United States. Simon Property Group (SPG.N), the largest owner of U.S. mall and outlet centers and owner of outlets in Canada, Malaysia, Japan, Korea and Mexico, also declined to comment. (Writing and additional reporting by Caroline Humer Editing by Martin Howell and James Dalgleish)

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