AQIM was responsible for the Mali and Burkina Faso hotel attack in November 2015 and January 2016, pointing to a new trend of active shooting incidents in public places. On 20 November 2015, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) attacked a Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali which led to the death of more than 20 people. The hotel is said to be located in one of Bamako’s wealthy neighborhoods which is also home to government ministries and diplomats.
Less than two months later, on Friday 15 January 2016, around 8.30pm, young men started shooting sporadically at a Café and then went next door to the Splendid hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso and began killing everyone in sight. This attack led to the death of at least 28 people and AQIM again claimed responsibility for these attacks.
There are some trends and tactics used by these attackers that are worth pointing out. First of all, the attackers chose to go for targets that were frequently visited by a host of foreign nationals. The Radisson Blu, Bamako had Chinese nationals from a construction company, there was an American aid worker, Air France crew, Turkish Airlines staff, Indian nationals and so on.
The Splendid Hotel, Ouagadougou, also housed a number of foreign nationals, many of which were specifically targeted by the armed militants. Among the victims of this raid were six Canadian nationals, two French nationals, two Swiss citizens, a Dutch volunteer worker and an American missionary.
In Bamako, the militants released victims if they were able to recite a verse in the Quran. While in the Burkina Faso hotel attack, they targeted foreign looking individuals and went back over the bodies of foreigners, tapped their feet to see if they were still alive, and if they showed any signs of being alive, they were shot again.
The terrorists have decided that such hotels with a large population of multinationals are prime targets because it allows the attackers get the effect of killing foreign nationals without them having to deal with the extra fortified security of foreign embassies. It also garners the terrorists the international media coverage they seek, which gives them the appearance of being ubiquitous and elusive at the same time; everywhere yet unseen.
What does this mean for you in Nigeria?
Despite the fact that most terrorist groups operate in different parts of the world, call themselves different names, and carry out their attacks through different means. The truth is that they all seek the same result which is to kill as many innocent people as possible. Some terrorist groups such as AQIM mostly target foreign nationals and non-Muslims, while groups such as Boko Haram and ISIS target just about everyone.
That being said, if you are staying in or visiting hotels, malls, places of worship, cinemas and other soft targets that have not done anything to upgrade and increase their security measures, then you need to re-think your decisions. And if you run, own or manage any of such public facilities, you need to take active steps in installing and implementing security procedures and equipment.
Don’t Rest on Your Laurels
Have you been in sitting in traffic, when you hear a vehicle siren with flashing lights, and then you see something that started off as a convoy of two vehicles, suddenly turn into a convoy of a whole bunch of vehicles taking advantage of the privilege of the escort vehicles? This is something that happens a lot in Nigerian cities and as it turns out, is a major security threat.
In the Bamako attack, the gunmen had previously carried out surveillance and noticed that vehicles with diplomatic license plates were given preferential treatment at the hotel’s security checkpoint. So they took advantage of this and tailgated a car with diplomatic license plates, forcefully gaining entrance into the hotel’s compound. Upon gaining close proximity to their bombing targets, the Bamako militants, detonated grenades, opened fire at security guards before entering the hotel and beginning their killing spree and taking hostage about 170 people.
In Ouagadougou, the attackers used the same tactic by torching cars parked outside the hotel and firing in the air before entering the hotel. This tactic serves to eliminate the security guards protecting the entrances. Secondly, it gives the perception to those inside the hotel that the attack is outside, preventing guests from escaping from the hotel and making them believe that staying inside the hotel is safer. Unbeknownst to the guests, the real threat is being inside the hotel.
What should you do in such a situation?
Although these events have been coined terrorist attacks, the scenario resembles something known as an “active shooter” incident. This is a security threat being experienced across the U.S. in which gunmen casually walk into public areas and open fire on unsuspecting individuals. Thus security personnel have developed an awareness strategy on what to do if you find yourself in such a situation.
The first thing you should do is to try and escape the premises if safe to do so. If you are unable to flee the premises, the next thing you should do is to find a place to hide. If you are in a hotel room, put furniture or other solid obstruction behind the door, switch off the light, put your phones on silent and hide behind thick surfaces that can prevent bullet penetration. And finally, if you are unable to leave the premises and you are unable to hide, you must muster up some courage and fight. An active shooter aims to kill anyone in sight and cause maximum casualties, so you must do whatever you can to protect yourself.
How should security forces respond?
History has shown that waiting till the building has been fully surrounded by security personnel before entering and engaging the shooters is no longer effective. A case in point was the 2008 Mumbai attacks, whereby while the security forces were waiting to enter the premises, the attackers were going from floor to floor and room to room seeking and taking out targets.
It is extremely important to protect yourself if you are caught up in an active shooter location as recent rescue operations now involve Government and allied security forces storming the hotels and engaging the attackers as quickly as possible. You do not want to be caught in the middle of the crossfire that is sure to ensue.
In Bamako, Malian special forces assisted by counterparts from the US and France fought their way through the hotel floor by floor, and killed the gunmen. In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso security forces backed up with French and U.S. military personnel launched their operation to reclaim the Splendid Hotel within a few hours of the incident.
Another key in surviving an active shooter incident is to try and have your mobile phone available. Most people within the crisis hotels are able to find out what is going on as well as share information about the current status of things within the hotels via the internet. For instance, in the Mumbai attacks, people who thought the threat was over were able to find out via news reports that the gunmen were still in the building and thus stayed in hiding till they got news that it was safe to exit the hotel.
While the current terrorist threat in Nigeria is with Boko Haram, and their area of operation is primarily in the North East it is a known fact that the group is still seeking to expand their operations beyond the north east and carry out attacks in other parts of Nigeria. The group has aligned itself with ISIS which Europol recently stated is seeking to carry out more “Mumbai-style” or in this case “Bamako-style” and “Burkina Faso hotel attack” style.
These terrorist groups seek to “one up” each other and prove themselves more lethal than other groups. Being that the AQIM attacks have been successful in other parts of Africa, they serve as some sort of ideal or goal of other local terrorist groups. Therefore it is important that Nigerians begin to take their security procedures seriously. For starters, if you find someone idly watching the security procedures of locations, such persons must be reported to security officials.
Unfortunately, our track record shows that we tend to be more reactive than proactive. These attacks on major hotels in the capital cities in Mali and Burkina Faso should serve as a wakeup call to hotels and other “soft targets” in Nigeria.
Security professionals should start planning counter measures by consulting with the private sector and ensuring that entrances to public spaces are well fortified. They should conjure up worst-case scenarios and carry out joint exercises to test and solidify their rapid response capabilities to terrorist threats such as these. Now is the time for all stakeholders both within the security industry and individual citizens to start taking counter measures.