Prevention of Terror at Shopping Malls Research Paper

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For the most part, malls and other soft targets that are part of US homeland security concerns are protected, not by public police but by private security. The events of 9/11 thrust private security officers into a new and important role. This research paper examines issues involved in providing security in shopping malls against terrorist attack. It begins by examining the threat environment. It then describes some of the unique problems involved in trying to protect against terrorist attack in a “mass private space” that is open to public access. It discusses two major studies that have examined the preparedness of shopping malls both to prevent and to respond to a terrorist attack. Lastly, it examines how Israel – where the threat of terrorism is far more pervasive than in the USA – has approached the issue of mall security. The paper concludes that malls are better prepared today than prior to 2001 to prevent and respond to terrorist attack. It also argues that, while terrorist attack against a mall is unlikely in the current threat environment, some of the same measures that would be effective against terrorism – risk assessments, drills with emergency responders, counterterrorism training for security staff, and enhanced partnerships with the private sector – would also be effective against random violence, natural disaster, and other emergencies that malls are more likely to face.


Since the events of September 11, 2001, security concerns have figured prominently in the national agenda. Government officials and the public now recognize a wider array of potential terrorist targets extending beyond military installations. These “soft targets,” or areas with public access, include transit hubs, schools, and mass private spaces like amusement parks and sports arenas.

One type of soft target that has received too little attention is the retail mall. With all the other soft targets that exist (e.g., transit systems, schools, hospitals), why should citizens be concerned about attacks against shopping malls? One reason is that the nature of malls makes them very vulnerable: there are multiple entrances and exits, and they are open to the public. Large numbers of people come and go, making it easy for potential terrorists to blend in unnoticed. Many of the visitors carry large parcels that could hide a bomb or other weapon. There are multiple ways to attack a mall, ranging from automatic weapons to car bombs to bombs placed inside the mall, even to an attack using a biological or chemical agent.

Moreover, the consequences of an attack could be quite serious. In the case of an attack using a biological or chemical agent, or a bomb blast resulting in structural collapse, the casualties could be very high. An attack could also produce insurance and job losses. A coordinated series of attacks against malls would almost certainly result in long-term lost business and serious regional or national economic consequences, as we saw in the airline industry following 9/11.

In fact, malls and the retail sector in general have been attacked in various parts of the world for the past several decades. Israel has experienced or thwarted attacks against malls on ten occasions since the start of the Intifada in the West Bank in the mid-1990s. Countries as disparate as Turkey and Finland have had attacks against malls in recent years. England suffered attacks against retail stores by the Irish Republican Army as far back as the 1970s (Bilefsky and Zimmerman 2002). A RAND Corporation study identified 62 terrorist attacks against shopping malls between 1998 and 2005 (LaTourette et al. 2006).

In the United States, several terrorist plots against malls have been uncovered by law enforcement:

  • In 2003, the FBI arrested a man on charges that he intended to blow up a Columbus, Ohio, shopping center. The man, a Somali immigrant who allegedly traveled to Ethiopia to obtain terrorist training, was a friend of a man convicted of conspiring to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. The Columbus suspect was sentenced to 10 years in prison (CBS News 2009).
  • In 2007, the FBI warned, based on information from a source considered reliable, of a plot by al Qaeda to disrupt the US economy through a series of holiday attacks against shopping malls in Los Angeles and Chicago (Esposito and Walter 2007).
  • In 2009, Federal prosecutors charged a 27-year-old Muslim convert in Boston with plotting to kill politicians and wage violent jihad by randomly shooting people at shopping malls (Bryan 2009).

The Challenge Of Securing Shopping Malls

Like gated communities and sports arenas, shopping malls are an example of what Stenning and Shearing termed “mass private property” (Stenning and Shearing 1980). These are large tracts of public-access, privately owned space which have traditionally fallen outside of the domain of public police. In these mass private spaces, the line between what is public and private property – and who is responsible for policing public and private space – is fuzzy. Private mall security officers are the first line of defense against criminal behavior and other threats to the public in shopping malls. But, in cases of serious criminal behavior or other serious threats to the public, public police and other first responders have authority once they arrive on the scene so that public police and private security agencies must develop cooperative relationships and emergency plans. Moreover, mall security officers are typically responsible for what goes on in the mall’s common spaces, while individual stores may have their own security personnel and systems in place. The shared responsibility for security means that coordination between the different entities is essential for an effective response to emergencies.

Shopping malls are also a challenge to secure against terrorist attacks because they have multiple entrances and exits. Typically, there are a number of main entry ways plus entry through large anchor department stores. It would be difficult to screen persons coming and going through so many portals. Moreover, to do so would risk turning customers off and nullifying the efforts of mall owners to create an environment that represents a safe and secure getaway from people’s day-to-day worries and problems.

Finally, mall security is challenging because security staff are not well paid and turnover is rampant. There are exceptions, to be sure, but typically mall security officer positions require little education or experience and salaries reflect that. High turnover rates discourage mall owners from investing in extensive training programs for their officers.

Research On Mall Preparedness For Terrorist Attacks

There have been two major empirical studies on the preparedness of shopping malls to prevent and respond to terrorist attack. Washington, D.C.’s Police Foundation conducted an assessment of the level of security in large enclosed shopping malls as well as the associated issues of training and legislation of private security forces (Davis et al. 2006). The core issue addressed in the Police Foundation report was the degree to which malls had become better prepared to respond to terrorist attacks in the aftermath of 9/11. The investigation included surveys with 33 state homeland security advisors to get their views on mall preparedness as well as surveys with 120 security directors of the nation’s largest indoor retail malls. The researchers conducted site visits to eight US malls and two Israeli malls to gain greater insight into how they are dealing with security preparedness and response to disasters. They also conducted a state-by-state analysis of legislation regulating the hiring and training of private security.

The report painted a picture of what malls were doing in the areas of risk assessments, preventive measures, emergency preparedness plans, training, and coordination with state and local government. The comprehensive picture that emerged of the state of security in large retail malls suggested that (a) there were significant gaps in preparedness, (b) there were relatively inexpensive steps that could be taken to fill those gaps, and (c) state homeland security officials and local police as well as mall owners have a role to play in filling those gaps.

The Police Foundation assessment found that malls have taken some steps to improve security. Most security personnel now get several hours of antiterrorism training. Still, half of the mall security directors answering the survey nonetheless felt that their staff could use more training. The report noted as well that a large majority of mall security directors said they have emergency management plans to define actions that security staff should take in the event of a disaster.

However, the surveys and site visits found that, outside of areas receiving specific Department of Homeland Security grants, very little money is being spent to upgrade security. Only a few states had changed their statutes to require background checks, minimum hiring standards or training, and few malls had upgraded hiring standards of their own accord. Risk assessments were rare and, when they were performed, were instigated by the Department of Homeland Security programs and state homeland security officials. Emergency management plans were too often developed without the participation of local first responders or mall store owners and their security staff. Drills to test the security staff’s knowledge of what to do in emergencies – when done at all – were seldom rigorous, seldom done with first responders, and were usually done without clear standards to measure their success. Many malls did not even have plans to limit access to sensitive areas in times of heightened alert. Many state homeland security offices had not taken an active interest in working with large malls to enhance security.

The Police Foundation report made four recommendations, including the following:

  • Conduct formal risk assessments and take steps to mitigate known risks on a cost-benefit basis.
  • Develop and rehearse detailed and coordinated emergency response plans and involve stakeholders.
  • Standardize antiterrorism training courses.
  • Enhance partnerships with the public sector.

The RAND study examined physical security approaches to reducing the risk of terrorist attack at commercial shopping centers (LaTourette et al. 2006). Unlike the Police Foundation study that examined both reducing risk of an attack and responding effectively in the aftermath of an attack, the RAND study focused solely on reducing the risk of an attack. It used a modeling approach developed on the basis of information obtained from three shopping centers to identify and prioritize the effectiveness of various security options at increasing the odds of thwarting different types of terrorist attacks. The study was intended to help guide shopping centers in designing and implementing strategies aimed at reducing risk.

The RAND analysis included 17 types of terrorist attacks, ranging from sniper attacks to hostage taking to bombs to biological or chemical attacks. The different types of attacks were rated according to their likelihood and according to the extent of damage they were likely to effect, both based on historical data. The responses examined included implementation of 32 different security measures ranging from installation of bollards to searches of people and vehicles to arming security staff to chemical and biological weapon detectors. Responses were rated in terms of their cost and likely effectiveness in thwarting various types of attacks.

The study found that implementing traditional security approaches such as installation of bollards, searching bags, encouraging reporting of suspicious packages, and searching vehicles were likely to be the most effective ways to reduce the risk and cost of an attack. The report also noted that some of these responses might have the effect of driving some customers away.

How Israeli Malls Handle The Terrorism Threat

In Israel, where the threat of terrorist attack is high, malls have been far more stringent in their approach to terrorism than US malls. The Israeli approach to mall security is based on the concept of concentric circles. At the outermost circle, there are roving patrols of one or two security officers and vehicle inspection points. Bollards and retractable barriers are utilized to restrict the possibility of vehicles being driven through the checkpoints. All vehicles entering mall parking areas and pedestrians are subjected to search by officers equipped with explosive detection technology (Story 2011). In addition, visitors are assertively questioned by security officers in an effort to determine whether they pose a possible security threat.

The Police Foundation study reported that approximately 40 % of the operational budget of Israeli malls was devoted to security, compared to 3–5 % in the USA. The high cost of security was driven, in large part, by government standards regarding numbers of security guards, vehicle checkpoints, and barricades, all of which must be met in order for malls to keep their operating licenses.

In Israel, mall security represents a close partnership of private and public sectors. The district police license all armed and unarmed security candidates. They conduct frequent on-site inspections and observe many of the drills being conducted by the mall security staff. Joint exercises team mall security in drills with the district fire brigade, ambulance system, and the entire police district. In addition, there is a system of transparency and open intelligence sharing between mall security and local law enforcement. Finally, mall security and local law enforcement share interoperable communication systems allowing communication over a shared radio band.

Israeli malls are required under governmental regulation structures to conduct periodic risk assessments, using independent contractors. The experts produce a comprehensive security plan for each mall. Once the plan is completed, it is handed over to the district police for approval.

Israeli malls have comprehensive emergency response plans for various contingencies, also required by the government. Each security officer is given a duty under the plan including a subset of officers assigned to an emergency response team. Plans include preventing outsiders from gaining access to the mall as well as possible evacuation – a decision that is entirely up to the security director. An immediate reaction squad meets in a special control room to monitor and direct security actions until the police arrive.

Malls provide monthly training for all officers, almost entirely focused on recognizing and responding to terror threats. Training is highly repetitive, both to engrain the procedures in the minds of the officers and to counteract the effects of high security staff turnover, a problem as acute in Israel as it is in the USA. One advantage that Israel has is that, while turnover is high, many security officers come to the job with recent military training as a result of the country’s policy of compulsory military service.

According to the Police Foundation study, Israeli malls usually conduct about 50 drills per month. The drills range from minor procedural drills to covert drills during which false bombs are planted and attempts are made to bring them into the mall.

For a further comparison of antiterrorist efforts in Israel and the USA, see Hasisi, Alpert, and Flynn (2009).


The level of security in Israeli malls is striking and, in fact, even during the last Intifada, not in any ten bomb attempts did the attacker actually penetrate a shopping mall. Israeli malls clearly have done an excellent job of creating as secure an environment as possible under very difficult circumstances.

There are those who would argue that US malls should take a lesson from Israel and do much more to secure themselves against a terrorist attack. A 2010 article on malls predicted that

—–.. .the mall in many ways symbolizes the United States to people across the world, acting as a kind of American Horn of Plenty.. .attacks will come and they will be ugly. (Dunn 2010)

The author’s recommended solution to the problem he foresaw was to set up armed patrols of ex-soldiers and police officers or to organize mall workers who own guns to bring their firearms to work.

This seems like a serious over-reaction. A recent industry survey found that just 13 % of shoppers thought that malls were unsafe (Smith 2011). Moreover, a recent National Public Radio story examined the practice of “security interviews” conducted by mall staff of people deemed to be suspicious. The story documented instances where shoppers were visibly upset by the questioning and questioned the practice of sharing this information with local and federal law enforcement agencies (Schulz et al. 2011).

No reasonable person would suggest importing the level of security used in Israeli malls to the USA in the present security environment. Additional terrorist attacks feared after 9/11 have not materialized. People would not stand for queuing to go through metal detectors, and there is no reason to ask them to do so. As a society, we have a strong predisposition against the kind of ethnic profiling that is standard practice in Israeli malls. There is no justification for malls to spend nearly half of their operating budgets on security.

However, while there is no reason to take the extreme security measures that have been adopted in Israeli malls, the level of preparedness in a post- 9/11 environment ought to be substantially higher than previously. New programs have been put in place by mall owners since the publication of the 2006 Police Foundation study, including bollards placed at strategic points, expanded use of security cameras, more extensive counterterrorism training of security staff, and emergency preparedness drills conducted with local first responders (Smith 2011).

Even if the possibility of an attack by ideologically inspired terrorists is discounted, the same kinds of actions that would help secure malls against that kind of threat also would largely serve to protect against other disasters as well. Risk assessments, emergency management plans, and drills with local first responders can help mitigate the impact of the sort of random acts of violence by individuals that have occasionally occurred in shopping malls (Heffter et al. 2005), as well as the effects of fires and other natural disasters.

Moreover, as Hasisi et al. (2009) have pointed out, the best plans and strategies will only be effective if they are carried out in active partnership with the community. Here, the USA can take a lesson from Israel, where the police have educated the public in identifying suspicious persons, vehicles, and objects. Public education efforts have also focused on how to behave in case of emergency so they reduce the likelihood of harm to themselves and provide help to the police rather than hindering investigations.


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  13. Story DW (2011) How should malls address terrorism? Security Management. www.securitymanagement. com/article/how-should-malls-address-terrorism

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