Why We Can't Actually Make Shopping Malls Impervious to Terror Attacks

If this discussion sounds familiar, it's because we've had it before.

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REUTERS

In the wake of the attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, in which Somali terrorists have already killed at least 60 people, security experts are once again talking about how to keep malls safe. If the discussion sounds familiar, it's because we've had it before. The last time was in December 2007, when 19-year-old Robert Hawkins killed nine people (himself included) and injured five at the Westroads Mall in Omaha, Nebraska. 

Hawkins was a mentally ill teenager, not a terrorist, but his rampage nevertheless inspired news stories about terrorist strikes and weak shopping mall security, stories very similar to the one we're starting to see now in the wake of the Nairobi massacre. After the 2007 Westroads shooting, terrorism experts talked about shopping malls as "soft targets," or "places where large groups congregate and that are difficult to secure." Things haven't changed much in the intervening years. Reuters reports this week that "one of the major concerns for counter-terrorism officials is that there could be imitators of this type of 'soft target' attack."

In another echo of 2007, The New Yorker's J.M. Ledgard wonders if the Nairobi mall attack presents "a new model of terror for al Shabaab," the al Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group that attacked Westgate. But not even that is completely new. The same year Hawkins opened fire in Omaha, an al Qaeda-affiliated would-be terrorist from Somalia was sentenced to 10 years in prison for plotting to blow up a shopping mall in Ohio.  

Nor is America the only place where people worry about mall security. After a mall shooting in Toronto in 2012, Canadian media asked what more could be done to make malls safe. The answer: not much. At least not if you want to make malls places where people actually want to go. It's also becoming a talked about issue in India, where luxury malls are omnipresent (if often half empty) in the country's biggest cities. 

Most large malls have security guards, both in uniform and undercover, as well as security cameras. The Mall of America in Minnesota probably has the most legendary security in the U.S., as Nate Rawlings notes at TIME

Mall of America personnel train year round for security issues from shoplifting to an active shooter situation. In an interview with trade publication Security Info Watch, Mall of America’s security director Doug Reynolds described lockdown drills, which the mall conducts twice a month. When security sounds an alarm, the stores bring customers inside, locking the gates and turning off the lights. “We make it simple,” Reynolds said. The mall also relies on behavioral recognition techniques to try and identify anything out of the ordinary.

More malls can design and practice emergency Mall of America-type plans for active shooter situations, as a mall in Belfast began doing in 2011. But short of adopting Israel's strategy of placing metal detectors at mall entrances (and having fewer entrances altogether), there's not much malls can do to prevent someone with a gun from getting inside. But what malls can't actively do, the economics of consumer behavior can: For reasons unrelated to safety, the U.S. mall is already dying.

Top image: Shoppers at the Zlote Tarasy Shopping Mall in Warsaw, Poland. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.

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