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Jan 22, 2008 | 23:51 GMT

4 mins read

Afghanistan: Lessons from the Serena

John Moore/Getty Images
Norway said Jan. 22 that its embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, is under threat of attack, a warning that comes a week after an assault on Kabul's Serena Hotel. Whether the warning is based on new or week-old information, a closer look at the Serena attack can provide valuable security insights.
A Norwegian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Jan. 22 that the Norwegian Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, along with several other embassies, hotels and Afghan institutions in the city, is under threat of attack. The announcement comes a week after an attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul that left eight dead. It is unclear whether the Norwegian warning is based new information from security forces in the capital or is merely a reflection of a Taliban warning issued a day after the Serena attack. According to the Taliban, jihadists were preparing to strike restaurants frequented by foreigners and "carry out more attacks against military personnel and foreigners" in Kabul. A review of the attack on the Serena, which opened in late 2005 as the first five-star hotel in Kabul, provides some insight into security measures that might need to be updated to deal with repeat attacks in the city. While the Serena is said to have had fairly robust security, it is clear that the Taliban operatives identified and exploited a key vulnerability. This suggests that, even if the attack was relatively simple, there was a period of preoperational surveillance, both inside and outside the hotel. This phase of surveillance is one in which security personnel can and should identify suspicious behavior. Indeed, after an attack, people often come forward claiming to have seen something suspicious beforehand and admitting that they failed to tell anyone about it. The Serena attack was conducted by a four-man team: a driver, two gunmen and a suicide bomber. The driver dropped off the other three near the front gate and left, avoiding the searches that vehicles entering the compound undergo. (This confirmed that preoperational surveillance had taken place.) The three militants then fired on the guards with AK-47s and rushed past the pedestrian checkpoint, bypassing by brute force (perhaps using the element of surprise, as well as overwhelming firepower) the basic search procedures designed to keep people out of the facility. While the Serena security procedures might have prevented people from sneaking in, these attackers did not care about detection. Thus, the small number of guards provided little deterrent. Once they got past the guards, the attackers headed toward the lobby. Before they reached it, the guards recovered (which suggests poor fire discipline on the part of the attackers) and fired at the militants, killing one gunman and injuring the suicide bomber, who fell back and detonated his device outside the hotel. Had the attackers completely incapacitated the guards during the assault, all three easily would have made it into the facility, giving them more time to carry out the attack and guaranteeing more casualties. Upon entering the lobby, the third gunman headed straight for the health club, which foreigners are known to frequent. After firing at patrons in the men's locker room, the gunman returned to the lobby, where he continued to fire at guests before leaving the building and engaging Afghan security forces in a brief firefight. The suspect then surrendered. It was the arriving Afghan security forces who ultimately ended the attack; the hotel itself either did not have backup guards or they were not moved quickly enough to the scene of the attack. The assault on the Serena shows that even apparently safe locations have their vulnerabilities if the attackers are willing to forgo stealth and a guaranteed escape route. The relatively small team that attacked the Serena might not have seemed suited to overpower hotel security. In hindsight, however, it is clear that only luck allowed the guards to survive the initial assault and shoot the suicide bomber, keeping him from entering the facility. Better guarantees would have come from a second layer of security inside the facility or elsewhere in the complex, as well as ways to lock down the various entry and exit points and the hallways and rooms inside the facility.

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