Securing Soft Targets: What the Kenya Attack Shows Us

This week, armed individuals launched a savage attack on the West Gate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya killing over sixty and injuring over one hundred and fifty after taking hostages. The attack has been claimed by the Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group al-Shabab as retaliation for Kenyan involvement in aiding the fledgling Somali government in the Somali civil war and puts a spotlight on the deadly potential of attacks on soft targets such as malls, schools, and other such places by extremist groups such as al-Shabab.

The term “soft target” refers to a target that is unarmored or undefended, primarily civilian in nature. Soft targets provide an easier alternative for those, such as al-Qaeda-linked groups, who seek to maximize casualties and the level of destruction and disregard for the demographics of casualties. The attack in Kenya is a clear example of this, as the attackers were brazenly after a maximization of civilian casualties to send a message that no one in Kenya is safe from violence because of their government’s involvement in Somalia. Realistically, the attack is unlikely to cause a change politically in Kenya on its involvement in its chaotic northern neighbor, but the attack will likely increase a climate of fear in the country and will allow al-Shabab—on the defensive since Somali Government troops backed by Kenya and Ethiopia retook swaths of territory since last year—to reassert its relevance among Islamic extremist groups.

The attack brings up questions over the safety of soft targets such as this across the globe. The Boston Marathon bombing in April was an attack that also targeted civilians right here in the United States and has since brought up the question of how to prevent such massacres from occurring. While some, including the pro-gun lobby group the National Rifle Association (NRA) might suggest that arming more Americans or beefing up security would prevent such tragedies from occurring, the costs of securing malls, theaters, schools, etc. in the United States is not possible, either logistically or economically. The number of security officials, metal detectors, and other security measures that would be required to completely protect something as large would be astronomical. However, the alternative proposed solution, one of restricting fire arm sales (either to those suspected of connections to terrorism or to those of questionable psychological state) would not likely prevent terrorists determined to inflict maximum harm from still being able to find weapons with which to conduct their attack.

The only real solution for a country like the United States to seek to prevent such attacks is to rely on intelligence and law enforcement to uncover and defuse attacks before they occur. Preempting attacks requires a massive amount of intelligence cooperation and analysis. The revelations provided by the leaks from dissident NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals the extent to which the US government has gone towards collecting information from individuals without their approval. This has unfortunately brought about the uncomfortable showdown in American politics between the schools of right to privacy and security.

The securing of soft targets in order to prevent future atrocities such as the Kenya attack or the Marathon bombing will be difficult. It will inevitably fall to law enforcement around the globe, including intelligence agencies, to work together to share information in order to preempt such violent attacks. While operating under the awareness that this type of attack is possible and a likely choice for extremist groups including al-Qaeda—given they are on the defensive and unlikely to carry out effective attacks to the scale of 9/11 after years of the so-called War on Terror—it is also impossible to provide one hundred percent security for these places. If such an attack were to slip through the intelligence net, it is imperative that law enforcement and security officials adequately trained to handle such incidents be able to limit its impact.

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