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al-Shabaab - the Warning Signs of Alternate Threats

03 March 2015 | Updated 01 January 1970

Whilst our attention has understandably been focussed on Islamic State and events in the Mesopotamian Basin, and indeed Europe, for the past few months, we should remember that there are other extremist groups which also represent a risk to the security of the United Kingdom.

This risk was demonstrated earlier this week when the Somalia based Harakat al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin, commonly known as the al-Shabaab or ‘The Youth’ group, released a 70 minute long video which encouraged its supporters to execute attacks on a number of named shopping centres in the UK, France, USA and Canada.  Like IS, the group uses social media to recruit its fighters and has a sophisticated video production capability which even has a musical hip-hop slogan of  "Mortar by mortar, shell by shell, only going to stop when I send them to hell" playing as background to its threats.  Al-shabaab recruitment has suffered in recent times as other groups have raised their own profiles.  A successful attack on the West would put them back into the premier league for the recruitment of foreign fighters.  

Al-shabaab is a terrorist group whose aim is turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamist state.  The group already have a track record of such operations having conducted an attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2013.  Jonathan Evans, previously Head of M15 is quoted in 2010 of saying that "It is only a matter of time before we see terrorism on our streets inspired by those who are today fighting alongside al-Shabaab."

The shopping centres highlighted in the latest video include the Mall of America in Minnesota, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, Oxford Street in London and the 2 Westfield Centres also in London.  Worryingly, it is known that a number of UK nationals, thought to be between 50 and 100, have fought recently in Somalia and some of these individuals may now have returned to live back in Britain.  Whether these veterans are in procession of any arms or whether they have the logistic support necessary to conduct what is increasingly referred to as a multi-terrorist armed attack (MTAA), is an important and key question.  Control of automatic weapons and ammunition supply in the UK is very strict and generally effective but we would be dangerously complacent to assume that none were now in circulation in the terrorist netherworld after events in Libya and other Middle Eastern battlefields. 

Arguably the MTAA is one of the most difficult operations to defeat once underway.  Massing sufficient organised firepower quickly enough to overmatch the terrorists before they can inflict significant casualties in what are seen as soft targets is a real challenge for the police and military counter-terrorist fast reaction forces.  This is particularly the case if the perpetrators are equipped with grenades or other improvised explosive devices as well as assault rifles and handguns.  Even a single ‘lone wolf’ gunman operating alone and inspired by this kind of video can do a great deal of damage before being captured, killed or disabled by security forces.   It is unlikely that such individuals will feature prominently, if at all, on the intelligence service’s radar screens and is likely to be a clean skin. 

The criminals will most likely attack when the centre is at its busiest – perhaps at weekends or during bank holiday periods.  In the event of such an incident, it is unlikely that an effective armed response will arrive, and be mustered in sufficient numbers to take offensive action, for between 15 to 20 minutes after the incident has begun.  Unarmed police units will be of limited value during the course of such an incident.  Fifteen minutes can seem an awfully long time if live rounds are flying around and one has to hide under a shop counter or a window display!  There may now be a case for an armed private security response, which is highly familiar with the geography of the facility, to be based on site at the highest risk locations in order to provide at least a holding and containment capability until heavier firepower can be rallied and brought to bear.          

Public vigilance is one essential element required to defeat this threat.  The private security organisations which already protect both the staff and customers in such targets are critical in identifying a terrorist target reconnaissance in advance of a planned assault or the build up to an actual attack.  Solid security is required even when the centre is closed to the public and suspicious activity must be challenged. Visual surveillance systems deploying digital high-definition IP cameras now have a vital role to play as does the increasingly sophisticated software becoming available to help spot suspicious behaviour and activity.  The Mark 1 human eyeball alone is no longer sufficient.  But in addition, each and every shop, retail chain or individual outlet within the centre or mall must now have prepared a viable contingency plan to cope with such an eventuality.  This should dove-tail with the centre’s business continuity management plan (BCMP) and staff training, supported by mission rehearsals, is essential if the plan is to work effectively on the day it is needed.  Each and every staff member must know what to do and where to go should the worst happen.  They must be trained and practiced and know how to manage their customers and what advice to give and what actions to take.    

We live in dangerous times; however, detailed prior preparation and informed planning can mitigate or defeat the risks we now face.  Coordination and information sharing are the keys to success with technology now underpinning natural human suspicion and inquisitiveness.  The basic security requirements such as staff screening, access control and security education have never been more important.  All suspicions should be reported as even the smallest morsel of intelligence can help build up the larger threat picture.  We all have a role to play in this campaign and our senses and suspicions are one of the most powerful shields the community has. 

Early Stage Major Incident Planning

In the early stages of any major incident, be it accidental such as a serious building fire or human inspired such as a terrorist bombing or an armed attack, confusion will inevitably reign.  It was probably more than 60 minutes into the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005 before a viable picture of what was really taking place began to emerge at the higher operational levels of command.  Despite all of our modern communications and visual surveillance systems, early stage situational awareness will always be a challenge.

This will be true at the scene of the incident(s) as well as higher control centres along the chain of command.  First responders arriving on the scene will be hungry, indeed craving, for information, detail and leads as to exactly what has happened, how many casualties there are, where the perpetrators may now be, what they are wearing, how many people are unaccounted for – and most crucially, what weapons the attackers may have with them.  The bronze commander’s role, of whichever service he or she may belong, will be made significantly clearer if they are presented with a clear, calm, un-emotive briefing on the layout of the scene, entry and exit routes, hazardous substances area and critical facilities locations.  Maps of the area, floor-plans of the building and even up-to-date aerial photographs will all help set the scene and familiarise reinforcements quickly and effectively.


Perhaps a lesson from modern history can assist?

In Belfast, during the Army’s ‘Operation Banner’ campaign in the 1970s, the discovery of an improvised explosive device (IED) would result in a ‘Felix Request’ from the scene – a radio message from the commander on the ground to his headquarters meaning send an ammunition technical officer (ATO) to deal with the device before it detonates.  ‘Felix’ was the appointment title used on radio networks for the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) team - as they hopefully had a cat’s 9 lives – they were called ‘the bomb disposal team’ by everyone else.  Speed of action was clearly of the essence – but so was establishing the facts and corralling the relevant witnesses before ATO arrived on scene – in order that he (there were no ‘she’s’ serving in this role in that era!) could be given the best possible briefing before making his approach and attack on the device.

Whilst the ATO was in transit to the scene, the tactical commander would establish an ‘Incident Control Point’ (the ICP) – and whilst en route to the area, Felix would be given the location of the ICP, for example as ‘Junction of Falls Road and Priory Avenue’ – and that is where he would arrive.

It was important to secure this ICP – the terrorists saw an ATO as a high value target and they would be delighted to explode a secondary device, previously concealed at an obvious crossroads where the ICP could conceivably be situated – so the rule was never choose the obvious location.  Thus the location had to be carefully selected, searched and then protected.

The on-scene commander would have maps and diagrammes ready and available together with the witnesses, calmed and prepared to brief Felix on arrival.  They would be able to answer his questions – what did the bomber say as he ran off? Did you see the shape of the device that they planted?  Are the doors of the van carrying the device still open or closed?  How do we get access to the building?


Designating your own Incident Control Point

In these days of increased threats, it struck me that as part of their emergency response plans, large sites such as shopping centres and large multi-occupancy premium target buildings may wish to have a member of their security team, who is nominated to brief first responders as they arrive on scene and who would move to the designated ICP and act as the Emergency Services Liaison Officer (ESLO) for the duration of the incident.  This individual would be familiar with the building layout and he or she would be equipped with all of the necessary plans and diagrams for the whole site as well as communications back to the security operations centre.  Ideally the maps and plans would be duplicated and waterproofed to assist during inclement weather.  They would be stored in a ‘grab-bag’ located in the security control centre and kept updated on a regular basis.

A designated RVP, similar to those used now at airports as a meeting area for responding emergency services vehicles, could be nominated – perhaps even previously secured to ensure its integrity.  A nearby locked, robust and ideally hardened room, close enough to provide an eyes-on view of the scene but far enough away not to be involved directly or threatened by the incident, would be collocated. Once primary responders' own command vehicles arrive on scene, then the ICP can be closed and moved to a more technological environment.


Pre-formatted messages

The second element of achieving early situational awareness is to provide a common first reporting format which gives the basic, immediate information required by first responders.  This could be transmitted by email or voice to relevant control rooms and leads itself to a ‘drop box’ style of completion to aid the security officer sending the report who inevitably will be under considerable pressure at this stage.  Such pre-formatted messages are already used within the emergency services – this simply extends their usage forward into the broader security domain.

A possible format is shown below at Figure 1 for discussion and debate:





Exact Location of Incident



Type of Incident



Number of Casualties



Numbers Unaccounted



ICP Location



Any Restrictions On Approach Routes



Actions Taken/Initiated



Other Useful Information


Figure 1: Initial Major Incident Report


Improve the clarity

Anything that can be done to improve the clarity, accuracy and flow of information to first responders has to give them a better chance of saving property and lives and overall improving the efficacy of their early actions.  Situational awareness will improve the velocity of the response, the coordination between services and reduce the overall ‘fog of war’ inevitable in the early stages of a complex asymmetric incident.  The pre-designation of a secure ICP close to the incident equipped with plans and mapping plus the use of pre-formatted reporting techniques as shown above could assist.    



If you would like to discuss your emergency planning and BCP  needs, or to simply verify and test that they are fit for purpose, contact Jeff Little OBE MBA CGIA FICPEM  FSyI for an informal discussion on 07885 772488 or email

For daily updates on security and resilience matters, follow Jeff on Twitter

Article written by Jeff Little, OBE | Published 03 March 2015


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