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The Threat to Hotels

Why are Hotels a Target?

There are many crowded public places that terrorists may be tempted to attack. So, why are they increasingly targeting hotels? Well, there are several reasons...

In the mindset of a terrorist, it would be difficult to design a target more attractive than a hotel because:

  • Major hotels can be prestigious, high-profile targets - targets whose destruction would attract world-wide media attention. Terrorist violence is almost invariably symbolic and major hotels are symbolic targets of Western affluence and culture. Attacks on them and deaths of international businesspeople, tourists, VIPs and indigenous local elites guarantee the publicity that terrorists crave.
  • Hotels, with their substantial traffic of affluent and Western patrons, are also prime venues for kidnappings and hostage-taking. During negotiations, hostages may become bargaining chips, guaranteeing the perpetrators and their cause extended media coverage as events unfold.
  • Several areas of a hotel (e.g. lobby, conferencing rooms, restaurants) are subject to crowding at predictable times, offering a tempting target for terrorists seeking mass-casualty attacks.
  • Reputations of countries, tourism and major hotels are often closely connected and reputation damage through a terrorist attack can be catastrophic. The real target is not the hotel - it is the reputation of the country as a safe tourist destination.

Why are hotels so challenging to secure?

  • Hotels are challenging to secure - they must remain open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; there are numerous arrivals and departures; and there are many entrances and exits. Hotel companies must balance the need for security technologies and robust security procedures with positive customer perception.
  • Hotels often lend themselves to pre-attack target selection and reconnaissance, with detailed information, photos, diagrams, and even panoramic video clips available on their websites.
  • Baggage is not screened for weapons and explosives in most hotels and is often left standing unattended in crowded hotel lobbies.
  • People other than hotel employees require access to areas of the hotel that are not open to the public. Such individuals include maintenance personnel and vendors. This can make non-public areas vulnerable to intrusion by malicious individuals posing as service providers.
  • Most hotels have passenger drop-off and pick-up points that are close to the building, making them vulnerable to hostile vehicle attacks (VBIEDs - car bombs).
  • Many hotel buildings, particularly older ones, may not have been designed with security considerations in mind. Examples of such designs are those that include large areas of glass that is not shatter resistant and structural supports that cannot handle large overpressures from explosions.
  • Structural configurations (e.g. towering atriums, long hallways, spiral staircases, etc.) and large numbers of guests confined to floors with limited numbers of exits and common egress stairwells, can make hotels difficult to evacuate quickly in an emergency.
  • Hotel computer systems can be vulnerable to cyber threats. It must be borne in mind that computers control almost every aspect of hotel business. At the most basic level, a hotel could have its website hacked and its public image damaged. At the other extreme, a hotel could suffer from a sophisticated attack that could damage a core system.
  • Hotels are often integrated with other facilities, such as airports, seaports, railway stations, shopping malls, convention centres and cinemas, which can make the hotels vulnerable to threats targeting other facilities.

Potential Consequences of a Terrorist Incident

The consequences of a terrorist attack on your hotel could include:

  • injuries and deaths of employees, guests and visitors;
  • destruction of property;
  • hotel closure and long-term impact on the hotel group owing to negative publicity, loss of reputation, and costs associated with litigation brought by families of victims in the aftermath of a security incident;
  • reduced tourist numbers in the host country and consequential job losses in the wider hotel and tourism sectors.

A terrorist attack on a large hotel has the potential to cause hundreds of injuries and fatalities. Local emergency response agencies could incur extraordinary risks and expenses for a response to a major attack (e.g., special collapsed building rescue) and may even experience death of or injury to emergency responders. Structural damage alone at a large, high-rise hotel could shut down operations for as long as a year, resulting in millions of dollars of economic damages for the hotel owner and for the local economy. A terrorist attack on a major hotel could also result in public perception that hotels in the host country cannot be protected from a terrorist attack, which could have significant adverse economic effects on the country's lodging and tourism industry. Business and leisure users of hotel facilities might fear staying at a particular chain of hotels that has been attacked. The loss of business and leisure travellers would ripple down to other commercial activities, such as restaurants, conventions, airlines, and entertainment that support the travelling public.

Common Characteristics of Modern Terrorists

Although no single profile of a terrorist exists (a terrorist can be any age, gender, race, nationality, religion, etc.), there are some common characteristics of modern terrorists:

  • Focused on hotels and other crowded civilian facilities as highly desirable targets. Terrorists recognise that attacks on hotels offer an opportunity for targeting dignitaries, businesspeople, tourists and local elites. When an act of terrorism does occur, it often has dire consequences: death, injuries and property destruction.
  • Operate clandestinely in organised cells. Analysis of the cell structures of recent terrorist plots reveals that most cells consisted of between two and thirteen members.
  • Patient. Terrorists are prepared to spend months and even years in "sleeper mode" until it is time to begin their operations.
  • Careful and thorough in planning their operations. Terrorists usually meticulously plan their operations to minimise risk and achieve the highest probability of success. They focus on avoiding their opponents' strengths and concentrating on their opponents' weaknesses - conducting intelligence gathering, surveillance, and dummy runs. If a target facility has alert staff and security procedures that are diligently enforced, terrorists will often switch their attention to an easier target.
  • Intelligent and calculating. Terrorism is not a random, mindless activity. It consists of operations carefully planned by clever, ruthless minds. Contrary to the stereotype that terrorists are wild-eyed psychopaths, most terrorists are actually quite sane (albeit radicalised and indoctrinated). Terrorist groups need members whose behaviour appears to be normal and who won't arouse suspicion - it would compromise their operations to have unstable individuals within their ranks. For victims, on the other hand, the violence inflicted upon them by terrorists is indeed experienced as mindless and without justification.
  • Ruthless and extremely violent in their intentions and actions. The terrorist threat we face today is of a different nature and magnitude to any we have encountered before. The sheer scale of al Qaeda's simultaneous suicide attacks on 9/11 (11 September 2001) eclipsed anything previously seen in terrorism. Before the 9/11 attacks, it had been possible to believe that there were limits beyond which even terrorists would not go. After 9/11 we realise that the rage and malice of today's terrorists has no limits - they are capable of anything and will stop at nothing! The November 2008 terrorist operation in Mumbai, which included attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace and Oberoi Trident Hotels, has been referred to as "India's 9/11" owing to the extreme violence used, high body count inflicted and revulsion inspired. The threat of future attacks on hotels continues. In May 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al Qaeda figure, threatened Mumbai-style attacks in Europe, Africa and America
  • Innovative and unpredictable. Terrorists are continually devising new ways to wreak havoc and murder. They regularly test security systems looking for weaknesses to exploit, learn from previous attacks, and seek new, more lethal weapons. The potential for terrorist use of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) weapons is of particular concern. The attacks on 9/11 (11 September 2001) highlighted how innovative and unpredictable terrorist attacks can be.
  • Thrive on media attention. The objective of terrorism is to use death and destruction to draw the world's attention to a cause. A terrorist operation may not succeed, but the terrorists may still view the operation as successful if it makes headline news and creates widespread fear. For example, the 2006 "Transatlantic Liquid Explosives Plot", an innovative plan by terrorists to detonate liquid explosives carried in soft drink bottles on aircraft, was foiled by British police. But as details of the plot unfolded, it brought chaos to airports worldwide and widespread fear of flying.

Past Event - Mumbai Terrorist Attack

Terrorism struck the Indian tourism industry with a vengeance in November 2008. A team of terrorists, armed with assault rifles, submachine guns and hand grenades, launched a three-day siege in Mumbai, India's financial and entertainment capital, killing 166 and injuring over 300. Among their targets were two of the city's landmark five-star properties: the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower and the Oberoi Trident complex. After storming the hotels, the terrorists fired on guests and staff, hurled grenades down staircases, set off explosive devices, took hostages as human shields, set fires, and engaged the Indian security forces in fire-fights. The grand dome of the Taj caught fire after terrorists set off an explosion on the roof as police closed in on them. The result was devastating: three dozen killed at the Taj, scores more wounded, and millions of dollars in damage to the historic hotel. The destruction wrought at the Oberoi was of similar magnitude. India's economy, meanwhile, sustained an estimated $40 billion in damage as business ground to a halt and foreign visitors cancelled travel plans. The Mumbai terrorist attack has been referred to as "India's 9/11" owing to the extreme violence used, high body count inflicted and revulsion inspired

Threat to Hotels from Criminals

Substantial concentrations of wealth, property and people make hotels attractive targets for criminals, both organised and opportunistic. Headline crimes in hotels have included murders, rapes, assaults, armed robberies, kidnappings, hostage-taking and arson. When criminals visit hotels, owners, managers, staff and guests can pay a very high price, both financially and emotionally.

Threat to Hotels from Protestors and Activists

During the past two decades, radical environmental, anti-capitalist and animal rights groups have committed serious crimes, including harassment, vandalism, looting and arson. Hotels are sometimes perceived as glamorous, high-profile targets for their attacks. For example, in March 2011, marauding anti-capitalism activists, wearing masks to hide their identities, laid siege to the iconic Ritz Hotel in London, daubing graffiti, smashing windows and hurling smoke bombs. The activists later claimed the Ritz was targeted because it represents the moneyed classes.

Threat to Hotels from Employees & Ex-Employees who are disgruntled or who have criminal or malicious intent

The ex-employee with a grudge against his or her former employer is another possible threat. Current employees with criminal motive also pose threats. Hotel employees can be tempted to turn a blind eye to illegal activity, or even participate directly in it, for a variety of reasons including financial gain and coercion. Criminals quickly become aware of where and who the weak links are, and work through or around them. Circumstances that foster criminality and security vulnerabilities leave the door ajar for terrorist activity.

On New Year's Eve in 1986, three disgruntled employees of the DuPont Plaza Hotel in San Juan, Puerto Rico decided to exact revenge on management for an industrial dispute by setting a small fire in a ballroom to frighten guests. Tragically, the small fire turned into a raging inferno that led to 97 deaths and more than 150 injuries. Terrorists sometimes even seek employment at hotels as cover for conducting surveillance. Convicted al Qaeda terrorist Omar Rehman took a job at the Ramada Hotel in Watford, England in 2004, to learn how to disable security and fire alarm systems.

Threat to Hotels from Complacent Employees who deliberately flout security rules

Staff may flout security rules because they are unaware of existing security measures, or they may just develop habits to circumvent them through laziness. The greatest risk to any organisation is complacency - "It'll never happen to me!" - but the terrorist threat today is real and grave. Although the likelihood of a terrorist attack affecting your hotel may be low, its impact could be devastating. Don't be fooled into thinking that simply because things do not happen often, they never happen!

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