The Terrorist Threat to International Hotels by David Curran

Recent events in Nairobi have yet again brought home the threat that terrorism poses to major international hotels. Complex attacks on hotels are relatively rare but on the increase. Since 2002 there have been over fifty resulting in more than one thousand casualties across nineteen countries. Those affected include Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Somalia as one would expect, but also Thailand with seven attacks and Indonesia with five. The list also includes Kenya, the Philippines, Egypt and of course Tunisia where thirty UK nationals were killed.

There have been twenty such attacks across the African continent alone. Hence the threat is not limited to high threat locations but to medium-level, complex environments too. Having studied these attacks some common characteristics can be identified:

Attacks are more likely to take place in the early morning or early evening when the lobby and public areas of the hotel are at their busiest as guests check in and  out and frequent the restaurants and bars.

The main assault is often pre-empted by a shaping event, as was the case in Nairobi, an initial attack designed to distract security and cause general confusion, this is often an IED. The main assault follows, a marauding terrorist firearms attack by one or more gunmen sometimes operating in pairs. In the DusitD2 in Nairobi there were four gunmen operating in two pairs carrying AK 47s and grenades. One, at least, was also wearing a suicide vest which he detonated during the attack directly outside the hotel restaurant.

Direction of attack – this is often the main entrance, then on to the public areas on the ground floor where the maximum number of casualties can be inflicted. The attackers then move up through the building and onto the accommodation floors. In Nairobi again, the attackers entered through the main lobby.

They then attempt to gain access to individual rooms by persuading those hiding behind locked doors to come out claiming to be room service, hotel staff or security as well as firing through locked doors. In Nairobi the attackers fired through closed doors into lifts and stairwells as well as rooms.

The duration of the attack can be lengthy as the security forces in many countries are ill-equipped and not adequately trained to deal with such an event, so they often develop into long drawn-out affairs lasting many hours or even days. The Taj Hotel in Mumbai was under siege for seventy-two hours and the event at the DusitD2 lasted nineteen hours in all.

So, what does all this mean for the international business traveller?

Well, firstly, when travelling to Medium and High threat destinations hotel selection is important and should no longer be based on the size of the pool or the bar menu but on security. Key factors are its general location and profile, the local security environment, perimeter security and access/vehicle controls. Then look at the internal measures, front of house security and controlled access to the accommodation floors.

Room selection is another consideration. State a preference, most people don’t, so you’ll probably get a room that meets your criteria. Ask for a room on floors three to six not too far from an emergency exit which takes you out of the building but away from the main entrance.

On arrival check the security features in your room then orientate yourself to the hotel. Identify all the potential escape routes and exit points, not only from your room but from other key locations in the hotel that you might use. If staying with a party, make sure you are located on the same floor if possible and have an evacuation route that avoids the main lobby if you can. Make a mental map of key locations and routes.

Be aware of periods of heightened threat, early morning and early evening, and maintain a heightened degree of awareness during these times. At night before going to sleep pack your key personal items away and leave some clothes and shoes ready by your bed so you can make a quick getaway if you must; not only in the case of an attack but if there is a fire or other need to evacuate.

If there is an incident move fast and get out if you can. If you can’t escape, find a hiding place or lock yourself in your room. Create a barricade then stay away from the door and so out of the line of fire. Preserve water and food as well as phone battery life, it might be a long wait. If you are in communication with a rescue team agree a signal, a codeword or specific knock they will use to identify themselves before you open the door.

Experience suggests that some basic research followed by simple planning and preparation can make all the difference and help keep you safe.