US malls brace for terrorist attacks

Three terror plots uncovered since 9/11 and security teams are specially trained in self-defence while they put on a friendly face for the public.

BLOOMINGTON // A janitor spots a baby's abandoned nappy-bag lying on a table in the sprawling food court at the Mall of America. A bomb-sniffing dog and a security officer are there within minutes, examining the package while nearby shoppers are held a safe distance away.

No bomb. Case closed. But that scene is repeated at the largest shopping centre in the US 150 times a month.

Years ago, lost handbags or shopping bags would just go to the lost and found. But after the September 11 attacks and a series of terror threats against malls, "we realised that bad guys don't write 'explosives' on the side of packages," said Major Douglas Reynolds.

He heads a 150-officer security force at the mall trained in Krav Maga, the official self-defence system of Israeli security forces. A plainclothes unit is solely devoted to behavioural profiling.

Terror threats against US malls - federal authorities have charged suspects in at least three terror plots since the September 11 attacks - have made huge behind-the-scenes changes to one of the most treasured American experiences: going to the mall.

Shoppers say they hardly notice the closed-circuit cameras, plainclothes officers and trained dogs.

"The average shopper, they don't walk in and think 'this could be the end', " said Don Heinzman, 77, of Elk River, Minn., having coffee with two friends at the Minnesota mall.

In 2004, an anonymous call threatening a Los Angeles plot sent more than 100 officers to protect various shopping centres.

Two Ohio men - originally from Somalia and Pakistan - are serving prison terms for a 2003 threat to bomb Columbus-area malls. Another man is serving a prison term for a similar plot against a mall near Chicago

A Massachusetts pharmacist is awaiting trial on terror charges; prosecutors said he conspired with others to shoot down shoppers in US malls and kill US troops in Iraq.

In a 2006 report, the nonprofit Rand Corporation found that there were 60 shopping mall attacks in 21 countries between 1998 and 2005 and that US malls may not be well prepared for them.

The International Council of Shopping Centres trained about 10,000 mall officers between 2003 and 2009 to better recognise terrorists and other threats. Experts at George Washington University designed the US$3 million (Dh11m) programme, which was discontinued because of a lack of money.

Paul Maniscalco, a research scientist at the university who was involved in developing the programme, called shopping malls "soft targets".

"I think they're as safe as any place else in the US," he said. "Unfortunately in an open and free democratic society there are certain trade-offs. The concept of a shopping centre is a pretty complex social icon within our society. You can't turn them into armed camps."

Malachy Kavanagh, the spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centres, said the threat to public places in the US is from "lone wolf" individuals.

"A big part is to be aware of who may be watching your centre," he said. Officers have to watch for people trying to engage guards in conversation, checking for security cameras, he said.

Major Reynolds said his officers need to cultivate a balance between securing a centre and cultivating a family-friendly atmosphere. "We're not designed to be Fort Knox," he said.

"We need to be accessible and make people feel welcome - but still protected."

With thousands of square metres of space and more than 20,000 parking spots, it's difficult for his officers to see everything. He's instituted the so-called "Ram Unit" - short for Risk Assessment and Mitigation - which is a team of plainclothes officers who perform behaviour profiling and who look for suspicious objects.

His officers don't carry guns but can make arrests under Minnesota law.

There haven't been any terror arrests; most calls are about shoplifters, missing children and abandoned packages. Occasionally, the officers will confront a drunk and rowdy customer.

Maj Reynolds said his officers must also be on the alert not just for terrorists, but for volatile workplace or domestic arguments that could result in a mass shooting.

The mall has a control centre where dispatchers monitor 12 closed-circuit televisions and field the 120,000 calls for service each year.

Nearby, the bomb-sniffing dogs are in a separate office. Maj Reynolds explained that he's transitioning from tough-looking Belgian Malinois dogs (similar to German Shepherds) to English Springer Spaniels and flat-coated retrievers, so that the dogs are perceived by shoppers as less aggressive and police-like.

"These dogs break hearts all day," he said, while patting Chuck, a four-year-old black and white spaniel.

If the client-friendly tactics sound like something out of Disney, that's because they are.

Maj Reynolds has visited Orlando to learn from security experts there, and even uses some phrases similar to Disney's security force.

Officers who are patrolling the mall are "on stage," and inside the training room, there's a large word above the door that leads to the mall: "Showtime."

Published: August 9, 2011 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one

Most Read