Just after 8:00 a.m. on January 25, attackers detonated a truck bomb outside the gates of the Dayah Hotel in the Somali capital of Mogadishu before storming inside. Fifteen minutes later, another truck bomb exploded, and security forces were dispatched to take control of the hotel.
The hotel, located near Somalia’s Parliament building, was said to be popular with lawmakers and government officials. That may have made it a target for the attackers—later identified as al-Shabaab, an extremist group linked to al Qaeda, whose attacks are designed to turn Somalia into a fundamentalist Islamic state.
The attack in January killed at least 21 people and injured more than 50, according to CNN. It was just the latest in a succession of recent attacks on soft targets in Africa and Europe, and it raised awareness of a global and shifting threat that no international business can ignore: the risk of an attack on a hotel where a traveling employee is staying.
Since 2002, more than 30 major terrorist attacks have targeted hotels across the world. Because of this outbreak of attacks, businesses, tourism professionals, and hoteliers themselves are calling hotel risk procedures into question.
Hotels as Soft Targets
Hotels became major targets for bomb attacks by terrorists in Asia in the 2000s, and the threat has since moved to Africa. Attacks against hotels in 2015 and 2016 accounted for a third of all major terrorist attacks in the world, likely because they are considered to be soft targets.
Some hotels make more attractive targets than others, for a variety of reasons. One of these is the opportunity to harm a large number of people. Hotels are gathering places, and in addition to guests there are visitors for banquets, as well as bar, restaurant, and leisure facility customers.
Another reason a hotel might be an attractive target is that it is likely to garner international media attention. The more victims there are from different countries, the more media attention the attack is likely to generate.
Attacks on hotels also express an ideology: international luxury hotels symbolize Western culture. Jihadists often consider hotels immoral places where men and women interact, and where alcohol is easily accessible.
Terrorists used three attack strategies when targeting hotels between 2002 and 2015: explosives (44.4 percent), firearms (25 percent), and a combination of the two (30.6 percent), according to the Global Terrorism Database.
Explosives. There are two varieties of attacks on hotels using explosives: the human bomb and the vehicular bomb. These tend to cause the most physical destruction and injure the most people, making them effective for terrorists.
Human bombs tend to have geographically restricted limits and are mainly used in spaces that are open to guests. For instance, in November 2005 in Amman, Jordan, terrorists detonated explosive belts in the ballroom of the Radisson SAS, near the coffee shop of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and in the entrance of a Days Inn. Fifty-seven people were killed in the attacks, and more than 100 people were wounded, according to The New York Times.
In contrast, vehicular bombs account for 31 percent of terrorist attacks on hotels. This technique is used to cause large-scale material destruction and potential chain reactions from the explosion—such as gas line bursts, fire, structural collapse, and destruction of guest and staff lists.
In 2008, for example, terrorists packed a truck with a ton of explosives and drove it into the Islamabad Marriott’s security gate. The vehicle exploded, killing 53 people and injuring 271, and officials were concerned that the building itself might collapse and cause even more injuries and damage, The Telegraph reported.
Occasionally, the two techniques are used together. One such case was in 2005 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, when terrorists set off a truck bomb near the Iberotel Palace hotel while simultaneously discharging a bomb in the façade of the Ghazala Gardens Hotel. They also detonated a third bomb in a parking lot of one of the city’s tourist areas. The coordinated attacks killed 88 people, most of whom were Egyptian instead of the targeted Western tourists, according to the Times’ analysis of the attack.
Assaults. Terrorists often use the assault technique, armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades, to target hotels. This method makes it easier for the terrorists to damage a wider area while also killing a large number of people as they move through the hotel and its floors.
This kind of attack occurred in November 2015 when heavily armed and well-trained gunmen drove into the Bamako, Mali, Radisson Blu hotel compound. They detonated grenades and opened fire on security guards before taking 170 people hostage, according to The Guardian. Twenty-one people, including two militants, were killed in the attack and seven were wounded.
Terrorists will also move from one hotel to another, not hesitating to take clients hostage to make the operation last longer. The duration of the siege often has a direct impact on the amount of international media coverage the attack receives.
Additionally, some assault-style attacks show that terrorists had knowledge of the hotels before attacking them. For example, in the 2009 attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott in Jakarta, the attackers blew themselves up—one in a parking garage at the Marriott and the other at a restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton. Authorities later discovered, according to the BBC, an unexploded bomb and materials in a Marriott guest room that was dubbed the “control center” for the attacks.
Terrorists also may plan to conduct attacks during a hotel’s peak operation times—such as during meals or organized events. For example, the attack in Bamako took place around 7:00 a.m. when breakfast, checkouts, and security officer shift changes were taking place.
Not all companies have well-developed travel security policies. Predictably, companies with employees who travel more frequently for work have a more advanced travel security program, as do companies that operate in countries with elevated security risks or in remote areas.
Companies also tend to have a more highly developed travel security program if one of their employees has been affected by a security incident, such as a hotel bombing, in the past. In this current threat environment, however, all international companies should review their travel risk policies because they have a duty to protect employees when they travel for work.
The European Directive on the Safety and Health of Workers at Work mentions this obligation, as do national regulations: Germany’s Civil Code, France’s Labor Code and a judgment by the Court of Cassation, and the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 and the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007.
The United States also addresses this responsibility through its statutory duty of care obligations detailed in the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The act requires large and medium-sized companies to define basic emergency planning requirements.
Also, depending on the U.S. state, workers’ compensation laws may have provisions for American business travelers abroad. Similar obligations apply in Australia, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Spain. And case law has reinforced this legal arsenal addressing the security of employees traveling abroad.
Under these frameworks, employers must assess foreseeable risks, inform employees of these risks, and train them to respond.
And these risks are no longer reserved for employees traveling to Africa or the Middle East; the succession of terrorist attacks in countries qualified as low-risk destinations—Berlin, Brussels, Nice, and Paris—means that many companies need to address these locations in their crisis management preparation for employees traveling abroad.
Some companies have already changed their internal procedures to address these risks, including changing the way that hotels are chosen for business travel.
Given the current threat environment and duty of care obligations for traveling employees, corporate security managers and travel managers need to work together to choose the right hotels. No matter the choice of accommodation, security and travel managers must conduct their own risk analysis to adopt the best strategy for choosing hotels for their employees. The analysis should include the destination, the profile of the business traveler, the duration of the employee’s stay, the company’s image, and the potentially controversial nature of the project in that destination.
Once the analysis is complete, companies have four options for choosing accommodations for traveling employees: international brand hotels, regional chain hotels, apartment or house sharing, or residences that are owned and operated by the company.
The most common option is to choose hotels with an international brand whose rates have been negotiated by the company. These big-name hotels can be reassuring. However, these institutions—described by some specialists as high-profile—tend to meet terrorists’ selection criteria for targets.
These hotels are also often franchise hotels, meaning they are independent institutions, master of their own investment decisions and the management of their staff. This can make it difficult for security professionals and travel managers to get answers to important questions during the vetting process: What security procedures does the hotel have in place and what is its staff management policy? Does it subcontract its security to a guard company or have its own security team?
The second option is to choose less emblematic hotels that some would consider low-profile, such as regional chain hotels—like Azalaï, City Blue, Serena, and Tsogo Sun in Pan-Africa—or independent boutique hotels.
Hotels such as these may provide more discretion than an international brand hotel, but may come with slightly lower levels of security, which could become a problem should a crisis develop. Lesser-known hotels, for instance, may not receive as rapid a response from security forces as a luxury hotel frequented by public figures and politicians. And for travel managers, this second option could be a difficult sell to employees who might be used to staying at international brand hotels.
Another option that companies might choose is to have employees stay at a private residence through the sharing economy, such as Airbnb. Google and Morgan Stanley recently began allowing employees to use Airbnb for business travel, and the company saw 14,000 new companies sign up each week in 2016 for its business travel services, according to CNBC.
For some destinations, this is not a viable option because of the lack of accommodations, but for other locations Airbnb has numerous places to stay and even offers a dedicated website for business travelers, which make up 30 percent of its overall sales.
One location where Airbnb is a popular choice is in sub-Saharan Africa where a major influx of young expatriates used to traveling and staying in Airbnbs have rooms, apartments, and houses available for business travelers.
However, this option has collateral risks, and many companies forbid employees from staying at an Airbnb while traveling because of the lack of verification and vetting of the residences, which may not allow them to meet many companies’ duty of care obligations.
Also problematic is the risk that employees will get lost while trying to locate their Airbnb, as opposed to an easily identifiable hotel. And the traveler might be unable to check in when the host is unavailable to let them in or provide a key.
The Airbnb option also raises questions for security professionals: If it’s attacked, how will local law enforcement respond? Who is responsible for contacting law enforcement?
The final option is for the company itself to provide private accommodations for its travelers. This is only cost effective, though, for high-risk destinations where companies frequently send employees to work. With this option, companies have full control over the security of the accommodations. However, this level of security comes with a high operational cost—purchasing or renting the accommodation, ensuring the maintenance of the location, and supervising essential service providers, such as housekeeping and security.
Additionally, companies that choose to provide a private accommodation for traveling employees would have the responsibility to secure the property—creating a security plan; purchasing, installing, and implementing security equipment, such as access control, CCTV, and fences; and providing security staff, either in-house or through a contract.
In 2002, a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 30 people at a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel, in the deadliest attack during the Second Intifada. Following the attack, Israel’s hotel industry led the charge to address security threats by tightening security regulations. These regulations required the hospitality industry to staff a chief security officer in each hotel, led to the development of dedicated educational programs on security with recognized diplomas, and ultimately provided career opportunities for skilled and motivated security professionals.
This model is one where companies can support hoteliers by including security as a key element when choosing which hotels can be used by employees on business trips.
Alexandre Masraff is a security and crisis management senior advisor at Onyx International Consulting & Services Ltd. and the cofounder of the InSCeHo certification program that focuses on hotel security. He is a member of ASIS International. Aude Drevon is a security analyst with a master’s degree in geopolitics and international security. Emma Villard is a regional security advisor based in Vienna, Austria, and a member of ASIS.