As Crowds Increase at the Mall, So Should Attack Awareness and Security Prep

By Bridget Johnson

Violence at the mall is a greater concern heading into the holiday season, when bargain hunters are camping out on curbs and swarming stores on Black Friday and families are queueing to get a photo with Santa. Holiday activities can create crowd issues that can spark angry brawls or even present a prime target for mentally disturbed or terrorist perpetrators looking to inflict mass casualties.

Some mall attacks stem from personal beefs that escalate into altercations, with the close quarters of a shopping center and flared tempers being a toxic mix. At the Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City on 24 Oct., two people got into a fight at the food court and one was stabbed twice in the abdomen. A fatal fight on 10 Jan. that left two men stabbed to death in the Westfield Wheaton mall in Maryland involved decorative bamboo in a planter being pulled out and wielded as weapons. In June, a person was stabbed in a fight outside the Valley Fair Mall in West Valley City, Utah, and the next month, at the same mall, a food court employee was stabbed several times while walking around with a tray of samples.

Sometimes violence breaks out in the course of the commission of another crime. In March, a security guard was stabbed to death in the parking lot of the large Potomac Mills outlet mall outside D.C. in Woodbridge, Va., after trying to stop a shoplifter.

Unfortunately, the mall can also be an easy target for someone eyeing random victims. One person was killed and nine injured in a 20 Oct. stabbing rampage at a mall in Stalowa Wola, Poland. “There’s no terrorist or ideological context for the attack, it’s rather his poor psychological condition,” regional police chief Krzysztof Pobuta told reporters.

The worst type of mall attack played out in September 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, at the Westgate. Multiple gunmen with grenades overwhelmed security and the government response was confusing at best. Sixty-seven people were killed by four Al-Shabaab terrorists.

In July 2016, 18-year-old Ali Sonboly shot 36 people, killing nine, at the Olympia Mall in Munich. He reportedly had received psychiatric treatment, appeared to be inspired by far-right terrorist Anders Breivik and seemed to target teens of Turkish and Arab origin.

On 17 Sept., 2016, the Crossroads Center mall in St. Cloud, Minn., was targeted in a mass stabbing that authorities have not definitively linked to terrorism while leaving open the possibility. Dahir Adan, a 20-year-old wearing a security guard uniform from a past job, entered the mall with two long kitchen knives and wounded 10 shoppers before being shot and killed by an off-duty police officer. The Islamic State’s Amaq news agency took credit for the attack and Adan reportedly asked a victim whether they were Muslim before stabbing, though those in the Somali community did not peg him as very religious.

The worst type of mall attack played out in September 2013 in Nairobi, Kenya, at the Westgate. Multiple gunmen with grenades overwhelmed security and the government response was confusing at best. Sixty-seven people were killed by four Al-Shabaab terrorists.

Taking into account their likely skill level, ISIS has advised lone jihadists to go for individuals or small crowds if they’re going to attempt a stabbing spree – though they have long suggested malls as handy targets, and specifically suggested outdoor marketplaces as prime targets for vehicle attacks. Al-Shabaab singled out the massive Mall of America in Minnesota in a 2015 video threat; the mall has had counterterrorism officers for several years in anticipation of an attack attempt. The State Department advised in its latest worldwide caution for U.S. travelers that malls are among attractive soft targets for terrorists as they’re “increasingly using less sophisticated methods of attack to more effectively target crowds, including the use of edged weapons, pistols, and vehicles as weapons.”

There may be heavy crowds in a shopping mall who may become victims in any sort of attack, but there are also lots of eyes and ears on the ground to report suspicious persons, activities or devices. Mall operators, while working with law enforcement officials to be kept abreast of any specific threats, can benefit from adding both undercover and uniformed security. Posting uniformed security and utilizing video surveillance at mall entrances can send a message that the premises are well-monitored. Mall employees, from the part-time high schooler at the pretzel stand to the full-time department store manager, should receive periodic training on how to deal with active shooter and mass casualty attacks.

The mall, Christmas tree lightings, outdoor festivals and other seasonal activities offer a tempting target to extremists and unhealthy individuals. Hostile events preparedness, proper security resources, and a “see something, say something” mentality can help keep the holiday season a safer and more enjoyable time for all.


Learn more about Hostile Events Preparedness and our HEPS Program here. Gate 15 provides intelligence and threat information to inform routine situational awareness, preparedness planning, and to penetrate the decision-making cycle to help inform time-sensitive decisions effecting operations, security, and resourcesWe provide clients with routine cyber and physical security products tailored to the individual client’s interests.  Such products include relevant analysis, assessments, and mitigation strategies on a variety of topics. 

Bridget Johnson is a Senior Risk Analyst with Gate 15 and a veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe. Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor at The Hill, where she wrote The World from The Hill column on foreign policy. Previously she was an opinion writer and editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News.

Bridget is a Senior Fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is an NPR contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, New York Observer, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits. Bridget is Washington Bureau Chief for PJ Media. Follow Bridget on Twitter: @Bridget_PJM

Police cars at Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City, via Fox 25 News, @OKCFOX,

Emergency services transport a victim to an ambulance following an attack at a mall in Stalowa Wola, Poland on 20 Oct. Photo credit Mateusz Nykiel / Social Media via Reuters, from NBC News, @nbcnews,

Westgate Mall attack photos via BBC, @BBCWorld, “Kenya’s Westgate attack: Unanswered questions one year on,”

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