The recent attack by terrorists on a shopping mall in Nairobi shows why soft targets are important. Once inside, the terrorists have numerous defenceless high-value targets. The bad guys, having automatic weapons and explosives can do a lot of damage in a short time. Being unafraid of dying for their cause, they can then use the high ground and prepared fire-zones to hold even military forces at bay for hours or days to maximize the propaganda value of their effort.
There have been suggestions that the attackers had hidden supplies in the mall and infiltrated fighters to use them when the time came. That could well be true, so, how does one defend a large soft target from enemies without and within? A few security guards at the gates and wandering around won’t do it. The mall in Nairobi apparently had a layered defence outside but the attackers had plenty of time to design a plan to overwhelm the defence. Once inside, the terrorists had hours to do great harm and to prepare a defence of their position in the building. The police and military had to run gauntlets of fire to gain entry being in the open with snipers able to fire on them from concealment. Only the large size of the mall and the small numbers of terrorists enabled the government to eventually regain control after days of fighting.
This is not good enough. Terrorists will always have opportunities. They have the advantage of knowing where they will strike, blending in with crowds and planning effectively whereas the good guys, the ordinary citizens will always be unsure where safety lies and where treachery lies. Either society has to trade lives and money for business as usual, treating safety as a cost of doing business or society has to build defence in depth everywhere.
What would have made a difference in Nairobi was a few strong points where well-armed guards could have clear lines of site in the high traffic areas. A single guard can easily hold off a dozen attackers flooding through a choke-point like a doorway if he has a long-range automatic rifle, plenty of ammunition and a bit of armour. In Nairobi, a few guards well-positioned could have prevented all but a few terrorists from entering and the event would have involved much less asymmetry in body-counts for the police could have flooded the building before as many civilians were slaughtered. Considering the number of guards involved and the value of the building, this is affordable. We need to do this for all public buildings: schools, government offices, shopping centres, sports arenas, theatres, etc. At the very least it would force the terrorists to pick smaller soft targets where the expense of better defence might be seen as excessive.
Above all, we should stop creating “gun-free zones” where terrorists and ordinary criminals can operate with impunity knowing there will be no defence. Having a significant fraction of citizens well vetted, armed and trained is a cost-effective solution to providing defence in depth around our big soft targets. Ask the survivors of Nairobi whether or not they could have dealt with the terrorists in short order had they been properly prepared and equipped. There was plenty of courage and daring exhibited by citizens but without proper means of defence many were slaughtered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or not being able to demonstrate the right beliefs when confronted by murderous bastards.
Kenya, in fact, is better prepared than Canada to deal with such attacks. They at least did have multiple layers of defence but they crumbled, not being mutually supportive. The attackers had only to peel the onion’s outer layers to get inside. Meanwhile malls and schools where I live are naked, utterly defenceless except by 911 and a few locked doors. Terrorism, as demonstrated in Nairobi, can devastate a school and escape before police could even appear on the scene. A typical school is ~100m in size. It would take only a few minutes to distribute bombs in such a building and depart. The fastest 911 response here is 3 minutes on a good day, with a tail-wind. What happens if the terrorists create diversions or the weather is bad or traffic is heavy? What happens if a few guards armed with rifles defend each corridor and the schoolyard? We wear seat-belts for a reason. They work most of the time. So do armed guards.