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Mumbai-style attack in the U.S. 'not inconceivable'

Mumbai-style attack in the U.S. 'not inconceivable'

Author: Peter Budoff
Publication: Medill
Date: January 28, 2009
URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/390/news.aspx?id=113293

The United States must increase coordination between the public and private sectors in order to be prepared for a Mumbai-style terrorist attack that focuses on "soft targets," according to a panel of experts who testified before Congress on Wednesday.

The hearing before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs was designed to examine lessons that the U.S. could take from the terror attacks in Mumbai, India last November, in which ten men, armed only with basic machine guns, killed more than 150 people in public places throughout the city.

Soft targets, such as malls, hotels, and public transit stations provide "ideal killing zones" for terror groups, according to Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior advisor for the RAND corporation and one of four panelists from the private sector who testified before the committee.

"Public places offer ease of access, certainty of tactical success, the opportunity to kill in quantity, and in many cases a recognizable name," Jenkins said. "That this type of attack could happen in the United States is not inconceivable."

Panelists emphasized the importance of increased security planning in the private sector in light of attacks targeting non-traditional sites.

"We in the hotel industry haven't typically been thought of as targets for terrorism," said Alan Orlob, vice president of corporate security for Marriot International Lodging. "Metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs in hotels was once thought inconceivable but is now a reality."

Orlob said that the hotel giant has been working with the Department of Defense to revamp its security blueprint, which already was among the tightest of any hotel group. Measures such as reinforced glass and a permanent security presence have already been put in place in certain high-risk areas. However, Orlab said the most important feature of its new security initiative was greater employee training.

"Awareness training should be conducted for employees to understand what may be suspicious and should be reported," he said, noting there were reports that the Mumbai terrorists stayed in the hotels they targeted for several weeks prior to the attack, taking pictures and diagramming the area.

Other panelists agreed that the most important step to preventing a Mumbai- style attack in the U.S. was an increased public awareness of suspicious activities.

"We can't expect to be able to fortify all of our soft targets," Jenkins said, "but what we can do is keep our eyes open for activities that look suspicious and then have an effective way for the public to communicate this to law enforcement officials."

Panelists also urged the committee to focus on groups besides al-Qaeda. Ashley Tellis, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that while al-Queda remains a serious threat, there are many other groups with similar aspirations and capabilities, including Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Pakistan-based group that was tied to the Mumbai attacks.

"LeT represents a threat to regional and global security threat second only to al-Qaeda," Tellis said. "And yet, nobody in the United States even talks about them."

Committee chairman Joe Lieberman of Connecticut agreed, saying that the Mumbai attacks illustrated the need for the United States to be prepared for terrorism in whatever form it may come.

"This tragedy reminds us that the enemy is still out there and that the U.S. is a target," Lieberman said. "But, it also reminds us that the enemy is adaptive, so we must be too."


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