Mumbai Aftermath: A Hard Look at Soft Targets and Tactics

Dec. 3, 2008

The highly coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, have, once again, raised concerns about the preparedness and response capabilities of government and private-sector organizations, as well as the role of building security in protecting people and assets from terrorist acts around the world. Clearly, the terrorists took a hard look at soft targets and adjusted their tactics accordingly to hit the easy marks.

The coordinated assaults in Mumbai with deadly weapons raise many issues about public safety in open spaces and private venues. But, if the latest U.S. intelligence reports are correct, biological and nuclear attacks are likely by 2013, requiring a different response from the buildings industry.

By Barbara A. Nadel, FAIA

The highly coordinated terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, have, once again, raised concerns about the preparedness and response capabilities of government and private-sector organizations, as well as the role of building security in protecting people and assets from terrorist acts around the world. Clearly, the terrorists took a hard look at soft targets and adjusted their tactics accordingly to hit the easy marks.

Although the details remain sketchy and may not be available in the near future, news reports about the Mumbai events provide basic information. It appears that a group of about 10 to 15 young men arrived by sea in small boats and docked at a pier – unobserved by local authorities, but noticed by a local fisherman. There, they unloaded packs of equipment and weaponry to be used in their carefully planned assaults. They chose soft targets in Mumbai’s financial and tourism center, not heavily secured or visibly fortified, as an embassy might be. The group was familiar with the daily operations and layouts of the hotels and public spaces that were targeted, indicating that they’d been there before, and possibly had floorplans and drawings.

The buildings and public spaces selected for attacks included lobbies, atriums, and open areas that facilitated killing large numbers of Westerners and local citizens, using guns for point-blank assassinations. Venues on the hit list included two luxury hotels, a train station, a hospital, an outdoor café frequented by Westerners, and a Jewish community center. The attackers specifically sought out those who held American and British passports. The siege continued for several days, until Indian security forces gained control of the situation.

Unlike the September 2008 massive truck bomb that devastated the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, the Mumbai assault didn’t include improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Media reports indicate that both hotels, the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal, had some warning that terrorist attacks were possible, especially after the Islamabad event. One owner banned parking in front of the hotel to avert the possibility of IEDs; the other stepped up security for a while, and then eased up; however, the terrorists arrived on foot and walked into the hotels without being stopped.

In some parts of the world with a history of attacks on Western hotels and properties, such as Indonesia, perimeter security screening measures of vehicles, people, and baggage entering the hotels are used. In large Pakistani cities, hotel visitors must proceed through several security checkpoints, often staffed by paramilitaries, and people may be questioned about the purpose of their visit. These intrusive measures are an extreme response to likely circumstances in a dangerous region. They would probably not be widely accepted in most tourism or urban areas unless the threats were pervasive or elevated over the short term.

Like the events of 9/11 at New York’s World Trade Center, the Mumbai attacks have raised awareness among building owners, hotel facility managers, and design professionals worldwide about how vulnerable their facilities may be in the event of a terrorist attack – and not just from IEDs. At the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal, where most of the violence occurred, high, central atriums – architecturally desirable elements because they typically allow natural light and views in a space – proved to be a major vulnerability. Media reports indicate that the terrorists entered the hotels, threw grenades and directed automatic weapon fire at guests and staff on the ground-floor lobbies and restaurants, and then ascended the atriums. From these vantage points, they shot at guests and commandos below, and lobbed more grenades.

At the 105-year old Taj, the attackers knew the building layout, kept moving, and didn’t linger in small areas with one exit where they could be cornered. Most modern fire codes call for two means of egress from occupied public spaces. To make matters worse, commandos and local police didn’t have updated as-built drawings of the hotel, which would have indicated walls, corridors, and recent construction.

“If a hotel is going to be attacked by a paramilitary group, only another equally trained force would be able to counter it, and, even so, there could be significant loss of innocent lives. Better surveillance and trained personnel could have detected the attack sooner, but unless there were significant police or military forces on-site, the outcome may not have been different. The fact that the terrorists knew the hotel better than the military is not a surprise, either. A terrorist knows where [he/she is] going to attack; the police do not. Older properties, like the Taj Hotel, have little to no protected perimeter. There is very little time to react. To truly protect a hotel from attack, there must be very aggressive and coordinated intelligence gathering, coupled with the ability to move quickly on any suspicious chatter. This all boils down to how much we, as a society, want to alter our lifestyle to try to be protected from acts of terrorism,” says hotel architect Bradley D. Schulz, AIA, LEED AP, principal, JMA Architecture, Las Vegas.

It appears that the hospital where victims were taken was also attacked, adding to more casualties – a tactic that’s increasingly anticipated in counterterrorism scenarios. The assault on the Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish Center in Mumbai, where six tortured hostages were found dead, including a rabbi and his Israeli-born wife, both of Brooklyn, NY, sends yet another message about how Jewish victims were singled out, in addition to American and British citizens.

Lessons Learned
As the United States witnessed after 9/11, vulnerabilities are often magnified and addressed, but not necessarily immediately corrected, after a catastrophic disaster. The apparent lack of preparedness in Mumbai on the part of local law enforcement, which did not have the proper communications equipment, gear, intelligence, and weaponry to deal with this situation, provides a chilling wake-up call to law-enforcement agencies in global cities that are unprepared for counterterrorism assaults.

The failure of Indian authorities to heed intelligence warnings and monitor coastlines effectively, if at all, was another vulnerability. Maritime and port security could’ve played a larger role in preventing this sad episode in Indian history. Even training citizens, such as the lone fisherman who witnessed an unusual landing of young men on the pier, to warn authorities by saying something if they see something may have thwarted an attack and captured the perpetrators early on.

Disaster-planning strategies for major facilities should include updating as-built building and site drawings for all trades so that they’re legible by laypeople in case of hostages, police action or other scenario in a building or campus and counterterrorism or rescue actions must happen on short notice.

In one situation I’m familiar with, an inmate held a nurse hostage in a prison office, and authorities asked the facility managers to identify where columns and bearing walls intersected, along with ceiling heights and duct locations, to help them plan a rescue effort. Ensuring that drawings are computerized allows copies to be provided to law enforcement and commando units rapidly. On the down side, drawings that get into the wrong hands can also facilitate planning of attacks.

Security Design and the Role of Education
For all building types, a comprehensive security plan consists of addressing design issues, technology and equipment, and operational policies and procedures that are implemented by building owners and those responsible for protecting people and assets. Each element is important, but greater effectiveness is achieved through coordination early on in design projects and security planning.

Just as design professionals are increasingly conversant about sustainability and environmental design requirements, it’s equally critical in a changing geopolitical landscape that security planning be included as another 21st-century design criteria for architectural, engineering, and construction students and practitioners.

In the U.K., this message has not been lost at the highest levels of government. Deadly attacks on rail transportation, and the July 2007 attack on the Glasgow airport, are the more visible results of terrorism. In response to what may be perceived as the concern over the likelihood of another attack, Lord West, the Home Office security minister, has teamed up with the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) to launch a competition for architecture and urban design students to create innovative antiterrorism design solutions, utilizing what I have often termed “transparent security,” which means that it’s invisible to the public eye.

Lord West said the “designing-in of counter-terrorism protective security measures to new buildings at the earliest concept design stage will be crucial to the future of safer crowded places.” Students are asked to design a public space with security features that do not “compromise the integrity of the environment’s aesthetic.”

In the United States, I served on a jury for an international design competition, cosponsored by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to design airports that reflect enhanced security features and user comfort. More similar partnerships will educate emerging professionals about security design, and may provide new ideas to seasoned government officials seeking innovative solutions to national challenges.

Changing Threat Climate
Since the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, many architects and structural engineers have learned the value of hardening targets by designing against vehicle and backpack IEDs, and progressive collapse of structures that may ensue; providing standoff, or street setbacks, lobby screening, and investigating glazing types to be used in curtainwalls and building envelopes to minimize fatalities from flying glass shards.

But, the deadliest terrorist attacks of the future may take other forms besides using aircraft, as on 9/11, suicide bombers, vehicle bombs, and mass assassinations by automatic weapons, as in Mumbai. Other design solutions, technology innovations, and operational techniques will be required to combat what many public officials fear most: chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats.

CBRN Threats Expected by 2013
A December 2008 report issued by the U.S. Congress indicates that terrorists are likely to use a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) somewhere in the world by 2013. This could take the form of a biological weapon, such as anthrax, the flu, or worse, which is easier to deliver and release than a nuclear weapon, but could still pack a powerful punch by killing thousands of people in a short time. According to the report, many biological pathogens and nuclear materials around the world are poorly secured and vulnerable to theft by those who would use them for terrorism or sell them on the black market.

With the growing concern about CBRN threats and the perceived vulnerabilities of so many public and private buildings, architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, and building owners will need to consider design strategies and costs of increasing building systems, detection technology, HVAC zoning, ventilation mechanisms, and air-handling units for every facility as part of a CBRN threat and vulnerability analysis based on the likelihood of contaminants released inside or outside of a building.

Decontamination procedures should be part of business continuity and recovery planning from CBRN threats. This may impact the choice and location of building materials, and access to water sources, as decontamination generally calls for open areas to be hosed down with large amounts of water. Drainage becomes an issue to avoid interior and exterior flooding. Natural ventilation can help prevent growth of mold, which may be a side effect of the decontamination process.

Understanding how and where to design safe rooms to withstand a CBRN threat, and what systems are required in them, are other design considerations for high-risk facilities.

Protecting public and private water supplies remains a vital aspect of critical infrastructure security.

Public health agencies and medical facilities must consider how and where they would be able to treat victims and mass casualties in a short time, and construct decontamination facilities for their medical staff and first responders. Additionally, during a terrorist attack in one part of a city, hospitals and emergency rooms must be prepared to protect their facilities from a secondary assault by terrorists waiting to strike and kill wounded victims, as reportedly occurred in Mumbai. Planning for secure facilities, command centers, equipment, and communications protocols for first responders is essential.

These are sobering messages, with costly, far-reaching implications, for prevention, detection, and threat mitigation, as well as for protection of critical infrastructure, public safety, and global security. It’s vital that the buildings industry remains aware of and ahead of these trends to develop innovative and affordable solutions – before they are needed – to save lives.

Rising to meet these challenges in financially difficult times will not be an easy task. Public-private partnerships must continue to enhance the built environment without creating fortresses and psychological barriers to enjoying daily life in a restaurant, a hotel, an office building, or a religious community center. In so doing, we will protect the rights of global citizens to enjoy the democratic values and freedoms so many have fought so hard to protect and defend.

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