Constructing buildings that repulse terror attacks

Wednesday October 16 2019

Experts advise building isolation barriers with the potential to minimise or prevent an attack should terrorists breach external security barriers. PHOTO | AGENCIES


Last Saturday was greeted with joy and pride as Eliud Kipchoge, in typical fashion, once again put the country on the world map by doing what was thought impossible: running a marathon in under two hours.

As that ground-breaking event took place though, families of at least 10 General Service Unit (GSU) officers were in mourning. The lives of these police officers were brutally cut short after the vehicle they were travelling in ran over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) on Degoh Road in Garissa County, a device suspected to have been planted by Al Shabaab militants.

Such a brutal act reminds Kenyans about the ever present threat of terror that hangs perilously within the country’s borders.


From the Westgate attack to the Garissa University attack and recently the DusitD2 complex attack, Kenyans know what the face of terror looks like and the misery that it leaves in its wake.

While Kenya’s security forces’ response to such attacks seems to have improved over time, experts in the construction industry concur that much needs to be done in the built environment to complement their efforts. Terrorism is an ever-evolving global phenomenon that is unlikely to go away any time soon.


This being the case, pertinent questions emerge: are there certain architectural designs that make buildings vulnerable to terror attacks? Also, is there something that can be done to make sure that efforts by first responders save as many lives as possible in case of a terrorist attack carried out in a building? The answer is a big ‘Yes’.

In the wake of DusitD2 attack, like in many other similar attacks before this one, a common chronology of events is emerging.

It all begins with a few explosions near the entrance/exits, followed by heavy gunfire meant to spark confusion and send everyone scampering for safety without giving thought to whether they are running where the terrorists want them to run. And then the dreaded part, a face-to-face encounter with the terrorists.


In an opinion piece in the Nation after the attack on DusitD2, security and terrorism analyst and consultant Mr Gitaa Nyasani urged the government to consider working “with construction industry stakeholders to come up with building design standards for mass public access facilities and venues such as shopping centres, incorporating practical and rapidly deployable isolation features during an attack.”

For instance, at DusitD2, it emerged that certain features of the building may have taken the terrorists by surprise, in the process saving many lives.


Large open plan office interior without people. PHOTO | AGENCIES

For instance, according to media reports, reinforced steel and glass doors barricaded the hostages and made it impossible for the terrorists to reach them. Additionally, automated security doors opened only by swiping tags denied the terrorists entry.

Speaking to DN2 from Australia, where he is based, Mr Nyasani said that his sentiments were intended to add to the richness of that debate and to make a contribution towards development of a comprehensive national counter terrorism response strategy.

Giving his professional view, Mr Francis Gichuhi, an architect and founder of architectural firm A4 Architects, says that a look at all the malls that have been hit by terrorist across the world reveals a similarity in design.

“There are certain building designs that can make the environment conducive for terrorist attacks,” he says. “When a building is designed like a fort and has a central core, that provides a perfect opportunity for terrorists to take as many lives as they can.”

To put it simply, in architecture, a core is a vertical space used for circulation and services. It is also referred to as a circulation core or service core.

It may include staircases, elevators, and risers, which allow people to move between the floors of a building, and distributes services efficiently to the floors. Often, this is where electrical cables and water pipes pass through.

Mr Gichuhi expresses concern that a majority of hotels, shopping malls and key buildings are built around a central core, making then very vulnerable to terror attacks.

According to him, terrorists are less likely to attack a building where there is more visibility from the outside. He gives the example of Galleria shopping mall, located at the Junction of Magadi and Lang'ata Road, where the circulation spaces as well as the balconies are visible from the outside.

Mr Kevin Oduor, principal architect and CEO of Do Design Consultants (DDC Architects) agrees with Mr Gichuhi in regard to visibility.


He says, “When someone is seated in an open space where one can see what’s happening around them, they tend to feel safe as opposed to when they are in a fully enclosed space where they can’t see what’s happening outside. An attacker will favour a place with less natural surveillance to execute their hideous plans.”

Yet another building that comes up in the discussion is The Hub Karen. The availability of spaces between the blocks, Mr Gichuhi says, provides circulation points, denying a criminal the opportunity to seal off the whole building like they did at DusitD2 hotel and West Gate Mall.

In the aftermath of the US Embassy attack in Nairobi in 1998, a US law required new embassies to be built at least 30 meters (100 feet) away from the nearest road. And it is easy to see why.
Mr Nyasani points out a notorious modus operandi for the Al Shabaab.

“They use vehicles laden with high explosives to ram and breach security barriers, a tactic that is in the DNA of their modus operandi. This tactic has been used with devastating efficiency while targeting prominent buildings such as hotels and markets in and around Mogadishu as well as when targeting AU Mission forces in Somalia.”


Therefore, the need for proper access control and barricading buildings cannot be overemphasised - Mr Oduor says access control around the building is critical, insisting that other than having metal detectors at the entrance, designated spaces for particular cars such as delivery trucks will go a long way in deterring such attacks.

He adds that pedestrian access paths should be clearly designated and preferably raised.

According to Mr Nyasani however, design and implementation of external security features such as steel/boom gates, screening machines, erection of concrete bollards, blast-resistant walls, projectile proof glass doors and windows and surveillance cameras is well canvassed, understood and documented.

However, he adds, there is paucity in information on implementation of internal security features, for example building isolation barriers with the potential to minimise or prevent an attack should terrorists breach external security barriers.

On his part, Mr Gichuhi says that perhaps it is time property developers considered having safe rooms in form of fortified bathrooms that are built to the standard of bank safes— pure concrete and at least 30 minutes fire rating.


Lately, the country has seen the rise of buildings that heavily rely on artificial air conditioning. While this may seem like a perfectly agreeable design option meant to make occupants more comfortable in the building, it presents a unique problem, and in a big way, an enticing opportunity for terrorists. Here’s why.

Sixteen years ago, militants seized a Moscow theatre and staged one of the worst terrorist attacks in Russian history. Before raiding the building, media reports indicate, police used the ventilation system to flood the theatre with knockout gas, with the government later explaining that they deployed the gas to prevent the attackers from detonating the bombs planted inside the building.

At the end of the day, at least 170 people died, including 130 of the nearly 1,000 hostages. Out of the dead, 119 died in hospital - most appeared to have died due to inadequate medical care after inhaling the gas.

While this may seem far-fetched and an impossible rescue mission in the modern world, especially after lessons learnt from the Russian incident, Mr Gichuhi points out that there is absolutely no guarantee that terrorists, who seem to be changing tactics every now and then, will not use such a method to achieve their goal in a building designed to heavily rely on artificial ventilation.

According to Mr Mukira Gitonga, the chief executive officer and co-founder of home automation company, Chimera IOT (Internet of Things), that the DusitD2 attack was foiled should come as no surprise.

He says 21 years after the first terror attack in Nairobi, one can only expect that our intelligence forces have become more effective in combating terrorism.

Another factor he takes note of is the extensive use of technology in 14 Riverside, from state of the art CCTV, biometric locks, stop gates, panic systems and more.


However, he regrets, such apparatus would not deter such attacks but, unfortunately, only reveals a deep flaw in the whole ecosystem where we have developed a reactive approach, rather than a proactive one, therefore, there is need to adopt systems that help forestall terrorism activities before they happen using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

“It has become necessary more than ever to develop new and more effective solutions that can prevent attacks, identify suspects, react to the moment, and also speed up investigations,” says Mr Mukira, adding that Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning is the way to go in preventing catastrophic acts of terror from happening.

“The Kenyan intelligence community should turn to Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning techniques to mine vast quantities of data and find discrepancies in suspicious situations.

These unique methodologies include establishing a nationwide camera feed sharing stream to track suspects. Once this is done, then image matching algorithms should be used to match suspects on user-uploaded photos and videos with terrorist faces,” he says.

Further, artificial intelligence can be used to analyse “text-based signals” from previously successful attacks, phone calls, texts and posts that praised or supported such attacks.

Also, the use of prediction software to pinpoint high risk areas to enable police forces to increase security presence cannot be overemphasised, he says.

“Following the constant attacks, there is an urgent need for stakeholders to begin dialogue and to develop and mandate standards that will incorporate building isolation features in the design of mass public access facilities or venues,” says Mr Nyasani.


He cites design of buildings into sections that can be rapidly isolated in the event of a terrorist attack to minimise harm as a good example.

Similar to fire deterrent technologies in buildings, he says, such isolation features should be able to be deployed only in the event of a terrorist attack, much like sprinklers deploy when a fire or smoke is detected.

For success, such a strategy should be based on a strong and sustainable collaboration between the government and the private sector, adds Mr Nyasani.

“The dialogue should be consultative and involve key stakeholders in the building and construction industry including the national government through the National Construction Authority (NCA), county governments, professional associations such as the Architectural Association of Kenya and the Engineers Association of Kenya, property developers, police, peak business group representatives, international partners, and academia and research entities linked to the building and construction industry,” offers Mr Nyasani.