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Feb 25, 2016 | 09:00 GMT

10 mins read

Staying Safe as Hotels Remain in the Crosshairs

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Jordanian policemen stand inside the Radisson SAS hotel, where a wedding party was being held when a bomb claimed by al Qaeda exploded, Nov. 10, 2005 in Amman, Jordan.
(Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)

International hotels are alluring targets for attack by terrorists. By their nature, hotels are quintessential soft targets, crowded with people. In addition, their fixed locations and daily business activity create a perfect cover for preoperational surveillance. Extensive traffic — both human and vehicular — inside and around a hotel's buildings also creates a significant burden for hotel security.

The announcement on Feb. 22 of a thwarted plot against a hotel in Morocco, coupled with recent warnings of possible plots against hotels in Senegal, Chad and Ivory Coast, are timely reminders of the threat of attack. Given this, it is important to not only understand why hotels are targeted but to review steps that travelers can take to mitigate the risk of being caught up in a hostile action.

An Enduring Problem

The terrorist threat to hotels is not new, and neither is the threat posed specifically by jihadists. In fact, the first al Qaeda attacks to target U.S. interests were the December 1992 twin bombings of the Gold Mihor and Movenpick hotels. The attacks were directed against U.S. military personnel stationed in Aden, Yemen, and I was sent to investigate.

The intervening decades have done little to dilute the attractiveness of hotels as targets. As noted in a special report on the militant threat to hotels, published by Stratfor in 2009, we believed that the massive publicity gained by such attacks was going to exacerbate the existing threat and lead to even more attacks against hotels — specifically more armed assaults. The report followed on the heels of violent terrorist actions in Mumbai, India, in November 2008 and the bombing of two hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, in July 2009. Recent events have shown that the trend we identified some years ago has developed as forecast.

On Feb. 22, Moroccan officials reported that they had arrested 10 members of an Islamic State-aligned group that was planning attacks against targets inside Morocco. One of those targets was the five-star Sofitel hotel and resort in Essaouira. Also on Feb. 22, the Pentagon announced that a U.S. airstrike against an Islamic State training camp near the Libyan city of Sabratha killed dozens of militants, mostly Tunisians. It was speculated that among the dead was Noureddine Chouchane, an Islamic State leader thought to be connected with attacks in Tunisia, including a June 2015 armed assault on a seaside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, that killed 38 — mostly European tourists.

Coming in the wake of the Nov. 20, 2015, attack against the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali, and the Jan. 15, 2016, attack against the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, the Feb. 22 announcements are a timely reminder that the threat of attacks against hotels has not abated.

One factor leading to the continued allure of hotels as targets has been the hardening of embassies and other diplomatic facilities.

Despite increased security at international hotels, they remain vulnerable. One factor leading to the continued allure of hotels as targets has been the hardening of embassies and other diplomatic facilities. Embassies became iconic terrorist targets in the 1980s, and attacks against them resulted in major programs to defend against hostile activities. As embassies became harder targets, terrorist planners shifted their attention to easier targets with less security — what we refer to as soft targets.

Unlike an embassy, a hotel is a commercial venture. To make money, the hotel needs to maintain a steady flow of visitors who stay in its rooms, eat at its restaurants, drink at its bars, use its gym facilities, and rent its banquet and conference facilities. On any given day, a large five-star hotel can host hundreds of guests and have hundreds of additional visitors using other amenities.

In cities such as Peshawar, Pakistan, or Kabul, Afghanistan, such amenities are often difficult to find outside of hotels. Therefore, these hotels become gathering places not only for foreign businesspeople, diplomats and journalists residing in the city, but also for wealthy residents, including government officials. It is fairly easy for a militant operative to blend in with the visiting throngs to conduct surveillance as a restaurant patron or shopper. Large hotels are akin to miniature, never-sleeping cities with people, luggage, food and goods coming and going at all hours. The staff required to run such facilities can number in the hundreds. The Jakarta bombings were facilitated with inside help by a staff member.

Many hotel security programs have dramatically improved in response to the threat against them. As a result, we have seen terrorist planners shift their tactics in an effort to create larger death tolls that draw more attention. One shift was away from large vehicle bombs detonated outside hotel perimeters to smaller bombs carried into hotels by individuals. Armed assaults have become a favored method recently. In places such as Kabul, we have also seen attackers target smaller hotels and guesthouses, which are often chosen by travelers attempting to avoid higher-profile hotels. Attacks have also been directed against restaurants and shopping malls in other places.

Armed assaults against hotels or other soft targets are fairly easy to plan and execute. They are also cost-effective because they do not require many resources other than firearms and willing suicide operatives. For the price of one large vehicle bombing, a terrorist group could fund several armed assaults.

Armed assaults also do not require much in the way of special training. Most jihadist recruits are trained to use small arms and grenades, so are well prepared for an armed assault on a hotel or other soft target. The simplicity of conducting an armed assault means that such attacks are not limited only to professional operatives. They are well within the reach of grassroots operatives — those inspired by but not directed by a movement. Such attacks can occur outside of areas considered traditional operational territory for jihadists. Generally, however, those attacks tend to happen more against hotels in the developing world — which tend to draw a greater concentration of Western visitors — than hotels in the West. Grassroots operatives in the West also have a far wider selection of soft targets, and hotels are only one type of many potential attack sites.

Mitigating the Threat

Since hotel attacks are going to remain a problem for the foreseeable future, travelers should consider taking steps to help avoid becoming a victim.

First, a traveler should learn whether adequate security measures are in place at a specific hotel before making a reservation. This information is best acquired from a trusted business associate or other source in the country, rather than the hotel itself, which has a financial interest in providing hollow assurances. Alternatively, consider other sources of information, such a Stratfor guides on planning a safe trip abroad.

Once a hotel is selected, we advise that guests follow an expanded version of the "avoid, deny and defend" active shooter advice. We encourage guests to avoid rooms that face the street near the main hotel lobby, which is where bombing attacks and armed assaults are most frequently focused. Those rooms can be damaged by bombs or receive stray fire from an armed assault.

Upon check-in, hotel guests also should learn where emergency exits are located, and then physically walk the exit route to verify that doors and stairwells are unlocked and free of obstructions. We recommend you keep a flashlight, a smoke hood, a cell phone and your hotel key on the nightstand next to your bed. In some cases attackers have intentionally set hotels ablaze, and in other cases grenades or bombs have ignited fires. Because of this fire threat, we also recommend that travelers stay on the third, fourth or fifth floors — high enough to prevent criminals from getting into the room from the street but not too high for fire rescue ladders to reach.

Hotel guests should also avoid lingering near high-risk areas such as the front desk and entrance areas, or lobby cafes and bars. People gathered in these areas have been killed or wounded in past attacks. Armed assaults also generally start from the outside and progress inward, so a restaurant or cafe well inside the hotel or on an upper level is safer than one on the sidewalk or in the lobby.

If you cannot avoid the attackers or deny them entry to where you are, then you must fight, and fight viciously with any improvised weapon you can find.

If an attack occurs while you are in a hotel, avoid the area where the attack is taking place and get to safety either by leaving the hotel and running to a safe place or by staying in your room. If you do shelter in your room, use all available locks and resist the temptation to look out the window or peek out your door to see what is happening. Draw the shades or drapes, because in the case of a bombing, flying glass can be deadly. Attackers generally travel light and do not bring tools to breach doors, although they could possibly take master keys from hotel staff, so it is prudent to use additional locks and items of furniture to barricade the door. If you travel with a door wedge, use it to help secure the door. Try to move the items used to barricade the door as quietly as possible so that an attacker in the hall cannot hear you. Also turn off the television or radio, silence your cell phone and turn off the lights if at night — you want the room to appear unoccupied.

In the past, people have survived attacks because assailants have bypassed locked doors in favor of open ones. People sheltering in their rooms should remain there until authorities arrive. They should also keep low and find as much cover as they can. In a hotel, attackers' bullets will likely penetrate many interior walls and doors. But such features provide concealment, so attackers would be firing blindly. Heavy wooden desks or tables and mattresses can provide extra protection from gunfire that might come through doors or walls and even through exterior windows.

It might take hours for authorities to reach all the rooms in a hotel under attack (in the case of Mumbai, it took days). Be patient and wait for them to do so. They will work through the hotel room-by-room to clear it of attackers. When authorities do arrive, comply with all instructions and keep your hands empty and in sight. Unless instructed otherwise, it is a good idea to be on the ground with your hands visible as the authorities conduct a dynamic entry. Attackers could try to blend in with survivors in an effort to escape, and to prevent this, it is possible that the responding forces will want to restrain and control everyone until they can sort out who is an attacker and who is not. Travelers should be aware of this possibility and comply if authorities decide to use restraints.

If you cannot avoid the attackers or deny them entry to where you are, then you must fight, and fight viciously with any improvised weapon you can find. There are generally a number of items inside a hotel room that can be used as improvised weapons if you practice a little creativity. Such weapons could include a table lamp, a glass bottle, an electric iron or even your computer's power adapter, swung by the cord.

Millions of Western travelers stay in hotels around the world each year and very few will ever encounter this type of threat. However, by being prepared, remaining vigilant and reacting at the first sign of danger, people can greatly increase their chances of survival if they get caught in a hotel attack.

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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