Saturday, March 22, 2014

Little Pistols, Big Shoes, and Kabul's Expat Community

Afghanistan Ministry of Interior press conference (AP)

After the attack on the Taverna du Liban last January, the diplomatic, NGO, and foreign journalist communities certainly would have reviewed the security measures at all of Kabul's foreigner-catering establishments. I assume they found the Serena Hotel's security acceptable, since it was heavily patronized by members of those same communities at the time of the attack yesterday.

According to AP's story:
The latest attack was particularly brazen because it was considered one of the best-protected sites for civilians in Kabul. Sheltered behind a nondescript wall, entrants must pass through a security room at the gate where they are patted down and go through a metal detector as bags are put through an X-ray machine and sometimes searched.

The attackers hid their small pistols and ammunition in their shoes and socks, Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqqi told reporters, but he could not say how the weapons went undetected. The hotel security has been known in the past not always to act when the metal detector beeps.

Based on my own experience over a lot of years and in a lot of places, it is pretty typical for security screeners not to act when the metal detector beeps. That's a human problem brought on by doing a mind-numbing routine for long hours at a time, often made worse by the technical problem of an uncalibrated metal detector (maybe the detector nuisance-alarmed on everything? maybe the guards turned the sensitivity down until it didn't alarm at all? either way, it was ignored), both of which are wrapped up in the cultural problem of low-wage, low-status, guards who are supposed to search the wealthy and powerful patrons of an elite establishment.

In a social and psychological sense - and probably literally, as well - a guard at the Serena Hotel uses the servant's entrance. It is unrealistic to expect him to be willing to jack up a local or foreign big-shot just because a metal detector beeps. Guard orders notwithstanding, he knows better than to do that.

Still, it's remarkable that the four attackers were able to bring in six pistols plus what I'd guess was upwards of 200 rounds of ammunition, all of it reportedly hidden in their shoes.

[Pro Tip: continuously verify that your walk-through metal detector is actually detecting metal at all levels of the archway, and for all possible sizes and orientations of metal objects.]

The best details I've seen about the attack come from the UK Guardian story:

The attackers were armed only with six tiny handguns, barely bigger than cigarette packets, but shooting went on for over two hours as security forces hunted down the last attacker, who hid inside toilets at the sprawling hotel complex. Hundreds of staff and guests took refuge in a cavernous bunker, while others were evacuated from the building.

The last person rescued, [MOI Spokesman] Sediqqi said, was the gunmen's first target. A senator who had been dining with three other legislators hurled glasses at the young attackers and escaped into a nearby garden where he hid for four hours, injured but alive. The other three all survived the attack unharmed.

The Serena had been one of the few places in Afghanistan where both foreigners and the country's elite could relax and enjoy rare luxuries such as a swimming pool and 24-hour electricity. Tight layers of security including armed guards, multiple steel gates, metal detectors and x-ray machines made the five-star hotel feel safe even though it had been hit by an attack in 2008 that killed seven people.

Thursday's attackers apparently hid handguns and bullets, wrapped in blue tissue paper and hidden under in [sic] the soles of their chunky shoes.

-- snip --

They had told guards on the door that they were going to the restaurant for dinner, the interior ministry spokesman said, although the government is investigating why their guns were not discovered during security checks.

Smuggling guns through the hotel's security screening was a bold tactic. Was it really that simple?

AP photo from MOI press conference

After looking at all the publicly available photos, I'd say the pistols were .25 caliber, or the Russian 6.35×16mm semi-rimless cartridge equivalent. They look comparable to the old 'Baby Browning' pistol, and indeed could be an arms bazaar knock-off of the Browning. That would put their dimensions at about 4 inches long by almost 3 inches high, and less than one inch wide. Their weight would be under ten ounces.

I count six pistols that were shown to the press, along with nine ammo magazines and a pile of up to maybe 100 loose rounds. If the shooting went on for four hours, and there were that many unexpended rounds left after it was over, how many rounds did the attackers bring in? Those shoes look big, but are they that big?

Did four men really carry in all that material hidden in their shoes? I can believe the shoe-smuggling technique would work, but I suspect there was more to it than that. Such as another security failure, perhaps one that can't be easily blamed on the guards in the screening room.

Maybe we'll find out more after an investigation. Whether we do or not, I think we can assume the foreign communities in Kabul will now be more locked-down than ever before as Afghanistan approaches the Presidential election two weeks from now.       


Anonymous said...

Great post TSB! gwb

James said...

They must have been wearing the same shoes Alan Ladd used in his kissing scenes to get that hardware in. This has a inside job smell to it.

TSB said...

James: Platform shoes? Could be. They could shoot like Alan Ladd in Shane, too.

James said...

It's not that hard to be a good shot when nobodies shooting back, at least at first.