AK-47s crackling, grenades crashing in all directions and blood-splattered shoppers madly dashing for the exits. Mumbai or Nairobi? Yes, but not Yorkdale or the Toronto Eaton Centre or West Edmonton Mall. Or so we will fondly believe until the day it happens.
Mass assault on a crowd of civilians is a spectacular form of terrorist attack and one that al-Shabaab or Lashkar e-Taiba are proud to have undertaken. Other al-Qaeda franchisees and affiliates would love to do the same.
It would be hard, but not impossible, to launch such an attack in Canada. One large heavy crate could hold all the arms and ammunition needed. Getting a dozen jihadists for a murderous suicide attack would also be complicated, but Canadians have been going off to wage the jihad in Algeria, Lebanon, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria for some time now.
Then there is always the 'lone wolf.' A Norwegian lunatic showed how much killing a well-organized one can achieve.
So let's assume – as so often happens in terrorism – the remote and imponderable becomes the real and present and a dozen gunmen have just opened fire in Yorkdale Shopping Centre. What next?
From long bitter experience, North American police have learned that the best practice in shooting incidents is what they call "active shooter" response. Police will rush in as quickly as they can with guns drawn. The tactic is hazardous for police but saves lives.
So, running into one of Yorkdale's dozen entrances on the 'day,' are two constables; each has a 9mm Glock pistol and 51 bullets. The two gunmen in front of them have AK-47s, at least a dozen 30 round magazines, hand grenades and pistols. The two officers will probably die heroically, but they may buy time for dozens of people to escape.
The next two officers will be a minute later and they may also have a shotgun and 20 rounds of buckshot. One of the two will probably be injured, but they will probably hold the entrance open, allowing dozens more people to escape. The gunmen will probably fall back from all entrances now and start grabbing hostages. At this point the active shooter strategy will stop.
Twenty minutes later, more officers will arrive in ETF vans, each with either an assault rifle, submachine gun or a sniper rifle and maybe 150 rounds each. The constables near the doors will be relieved, not least because they are almost out of ammunition. The gunmen are nowhere near the exterior of the shopping mall and more people are able to get out, but it is soon clear that the gunmen have retreated to the interior with a very large number of hostages. Attempts to probe the situation and push this interior perimeter will quickly result in more firefights.
The police around Yorkdale will be stretched thin; most have only a pistol and soon their ammunition will run low. Soldiers carry large supplies of ammunition; police don't. No doubt Peel, York and Durham regional officers will soon arrive but the same problem would persist.
In Mumbai and Nairobi, around this time, military troops started to arrive. In Yorkdale, this won't happen. The nearest Canadian infantry battalion is six hours away by road and hasn't been fully up to strength since 1990. There are reserve units in the city, but no ammunition is stored in their armories. Also, the Armed Forces are culturally unlikely to immediately assign reservists to the problem, even though they are far more capable than any Kenyan or Indian soldier.
During natural disasters, it has normally taken the Canadian Forces about four days to turn up even when provincial governments were prompt in asking for military support. Ottawa does not have fully equipped, trained formations of troops in the country anymore.
The police around Yorkdale are on their own and it may take days longer than it did in Mumbai and Nairobi to be ready to force a conclusion. By that time, in the interior of the mall, several hundred hostages will have been sorted out: Jews for beheadings posted on Twitter, young women for rape and children wired to grenades for when the rescue attempt comes. Negotiations will be a gift of time for the gunmen to continue to build barricades and amuse themselves.
In the end, the interior will be set on fire and all of the hostages killed before the last of the gunmen push out against the encircling police to seek their own 'martyrdom.'
There is no solution to this scenario, but there might be many simple measures that might be considered against it.
Obviously, intelligence to provide early warning and disruption of such a plot is our best defence. An aware and astute general public is an asset.
We don't need our police to be heavily armed and battle-ready, but it might be best if our police forces stockpiled a full year's ordinary inventory of ammunition in reserve against such a contingency. It might also be best if it did have a store of suitable small arms likewise held back in reserve. Police don't need to tote assault rifles every day, but they should be able to quickly get their hands on them, if needed.
It would not hurt to consider expedited requests for troops and the reservists are a lot closer than any regular units. Again, it might be prudent to lay a store of ammunition in our reserve armories.
This is not a scenario anybody in their right mind would hope for, but the nature of terrorism is to surprise and horrify us. Attacks on shopping malls, seniors' residences, hospitals, hotels and high-rise residences allow terrorists to seize many hostages and control them. This is the 'threat' we must plan for.
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