Boko Haram: How Nigeria can protect soft targets

By Bamidele Ademola-Olateju

One of the lessons we have learnt from the recent spate of attacks is for us never to confuse good luck with good planning.The country’s biggest mistake so far is its false sense of security that is now shattered. It strengthens the assumption that the fact that nothing has happened in the past, does not mean that nothing will occur in the future.Terrorists attack people and places with the aim to threaten, intimidate, attract public attention, and to kill as many people as possible.

Attacks by Boko Haram have always been directed at what is referred to in security parlance as “soft” targets, or targets of opportunity that are poorly defended and do not have much security. For this reason, soft targets give terrorists an obvious tactical advantage. They often avoid hard targets because such attacks are easier to identify and disrupt by law enforcement. Hard targets require would-be attackers to commit considerable financial and technical resources towards its preparation; the involvement of more people in planning, monitoring, and execution also makes it easier to foil. On the other hand, soft targets are easier to attack because it can be carried out by a madcap or by small cells and franchisees.

Almost every establishment and places in Nigeria is a soft target. Something has to be done to harden these targets before a calamitous attack that can kill thousands or even millions of people and cause millions of dollars in economic damage happens. Terrorists kill for the shock value that serves to glorify them and the cause they serve. Nothing will delight Abubakar Shekau and his platoon of violent men more than inflicting maximum damage on the Nigerian state.

Nigeria’s specific challenge now is the protection of urban soft targets and critical infrastructure. I urge President Goodluck Jonathan and his security team to immediately give specific considerations to urban soft targets exposed to increasing security threats of attack by Boko Haram. These areas are urban areas into which large numbers of citizens are freely admitted, for usual activities or special events or where they routinely live. These places include all airports – especially the porous departure halls – markets, banks, shopping malls, bus stations, hotels as well as cultural, historical, religious and educational institutions. We must learn from examples in Kenya, India etc. that attacking urban soft targets is not new for terrorists because they are easy to infiltrate and they are often packed with defenceless victims.

So far, the government’s dislocated responses have been based on counterterrorism. This means instead of hardening targets in anticipation of attack, Boko Haram members are targeted for capture to gain further intelligence and to remove them by way of targeted killing with a view to eliminating the threat they pose.It is an effort to stop an attack by going after the attackers or degrading their ability to attack. If the war on terror must be won, counterterrorism is not good enough without infusing elements of antiterrorism. Which means, using intelligence, political, religious, social, psychological, criminal, analysis to predict where and when an attack is likely to happen and using the information to harden against the possibility of attack. That is, reducing the likelihood of an attack by making a target too difficult to attack.

This brings us to the belief that terrorists are highly adaptable in their operations. Terrorists are actually nothing if they are not adaptable. Underlying their core belief is the alternative target concept which means, if it is harder to strike one kind of target, strike the easier target.Since it is impossible for any government to prevent all attacks, the people have to assume responsibility for their own security. One must report suspicious activity in their area. No government has the resources to protect every potential target. As long as there are criminals and terrorists bent on conducting attacks, they will always find vulnerable soft targets to attack because it is impossible to protect every target.

Now that terror has birthed on our shores, it must be treated as an unfortunate prospect and a continuing concern, but it can be understood and thwarted. Every citizen must make effort not only to prevent unlawful situations from occurring but also to deter the people who would commit those crimes. The internal security and employees of hotels, motor parks, shopping malls, schools, airports and venues with large audiences must know they are potential soft targets for terrorists. They must act as protectors and understand the nature and characteristics of terrorism, terrorists, and their methods. They must be vigilant to be able to foil terror attacks.

As a step towards protection, different categories of soft targets must be identified, as it is impossible to define a “one size fits all” approach for all of them.To guard federal infrastructure, the military’s traditional “3G” approach of “guards, guns, and gates” to physical security must be employed and deployed immediately without waiting for the attack to happen. Middle and upper class homes in urban areas have adopted the idea since crime escalated in the 80′s. Unfortunately the farming villages and settlements do not have this safeguard hence the ability of Boko Haram to invade and crush them easily. The idea is to place obstacle in the way of intruders and to use guards to control access through gates. This same concept can be used with gun wielding guards to harden a perimeter to ensure that only authorised guests gain entrance by making it difficult for intruders to gain access.

The protection of soft targets like Nyanya bus stattionis not an easy task. Security personnel cannot observe, screen and control every single threat and person in such a densely populated transportation hub. In such circumstances, public vigilance is a decisive factor in securing the park. It is public-private co-operation that can assist security personnel to identify suspicious people or activities. When security became tight at Nyanya, we saw how accessibility and efficiency became critical challenges for commuters. With the attendant loss of efficiency, another attack was carried out at the same park successfully.

To enhance public security, there is no one size fits all solution. The best course of action is to adopt a customised security system based on risk assessment. Attacks on public transportation facilities and infrastructure can be prevented by random searches of people and baggage, increased presence of security officers and bomb-sniffing dogs, metal detectors, close circuit monitors and the enforcement of restricted-access zones. We must be prepared to give up some of our basic freedoms for our collective safety.

Bamidele Ademola-Olateju is on Twitter: @olafunmilayo


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