Mall Security Growing More Vigilant against Terrorism

MANCHESTER, Conn. (AP) -- In a suburban mall outside Hartford, past the Abercrombie & Fitch and the cell phone kiosks, tucked away by the Barnes & Noble, a conference room full of shopping mall security guards are learning to spot suicide bombers.

They're being taught blast patterns and behavior profiles, how a bomb is packaged and how a bomber is recruited.

This suburban security force, known more for dispersing loitering teens than for fighting terrorism, is receiving the type of training that just a few years ago was reserved for the Israeli police and the U.S. military.

"If they're carrying a bag, look for that white-knuckle grip," Patrick Chagnon, a Connecticut State Police detective and national counterterrorism instructor, tells the class as the Buckland Hills mall bustles with holiday shoppers carrying bags and boxes of all sizes.

"Remember that white-knuckle grip," Chagnon tells his 10 students. "They're carrying that package and they're holding onto it for dear life."

Only a handful of people like Chagnon are on the national teaching circuit, but enrollment in these suicide bombing classes have increased in the past year -- not just by elite SWAT team members, but also by local patrol officers and private security forces.

"Everyone has an obligation to be a soldier in this war," Connecticut Homeland Security Director John Buturla said.

Israel has been dealing with suicide attacks for years. There, mall security guards, bus drivers and hotel managers are added eyes and ears for the police.

That's what officials are trying to build in the United States, where experts predict suicide attacks will happen. It's just a question of when and where.

The U.S. Office of Domestic Preparedness, the training arm of the Homeland Security Department, opened its first suicide bombing class last month in New Mexico. Already, 239 police and rescue workers have completed the course and thousands more are expected to take it in 2005.

"It is a priority to see first-responders get training," ODP spokesman Marc Short said.

Such training frequently is met with skeptical questions: Is al-Qaida really going to attack a Connecticut suburb or blow up a Midwest shopping mall?

Anti-terrorism instructors say a bombing is nearly twice as likely at a commercial establishment than a government building or military facility.

"A mall is packed with people. Government buildings usually are not," said Uri Mendelberg, a former Israeli military official whose company, ISDS International, teaches a three-day, $1,300 course on suicide attacks in Springfield, Mass.

Mendelberg said about 60 people, including security agents for major U.S. corporations, have taken his class since it opened last year.

Chagnon tailors his seminars to his audience. His lectures for mall security officials are paid for by the state and run about four hours. His law enforcement classes are longer.

Chagnon is honest with his students. He tells them that once someone wires himself with explosives, there's little security officers can do except minimize the deaths.

But there are warning signs officials can spot to prevent terrorists from carrying out the attacks. And visible, competent security can deter terrorism, he said.

"It will happen. You just need to make sure it doesn't happen here," he tells mall security. "If terrorists know that 'Mall A' has good security and 'Mall B' doesn't, where are they going to go?"

It's sobering advice to a security force that does not carry weapons and does not have arrest power.

"Five years ago, it was unheard of that a law enforcement agent would go to private security agency and provide that level of training," Chagnon said. "But law enforcement is forced now to go out, not just into private industry, but into the public and train them."

Steve Motyl, operations manager for the Shoppes at Buckland Hills, predicted classes like the one Chagnon held Tuesday in Manchester will become more common nationally as mall owners realize their security teams can provide valuable backup to local police.

One of the first students to take Chagnon's class was Edward Flaherty, the executive director of Connecticut's police training council.

Flaherty listened in March as Chagnon described ways to spot suspicious behavior and catch terrorist "shadow teams" surveilling targets. On the course evaluation form, Flaherty wrote: "All recruits should see it."

In October, Connecticut agreed, adding 40 hours of counterterrorism training to the police academy curriculum. Soon, all local police to hit the street will have training in preventing suicide bombing.

According to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, Connecticut is one of the first states to demand such rigorous anti-terror training. But the agency predicts more states will follow suit.

"It's not the norm, but it's all changing so fast I can't answer who's doing it," said Patrick J. Judge, the group's executive director. "Homeland Security is really pushing this type of training."