Why terrorists target hotels

Story highlights

  • Bergen: There's a long track record of terrorists striking at hotels with American brand names or that cater to Western visitors
  • Bergen: Safety measures are needed to prevent the kind of attacks we are seeing in Mali

Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for bin Laden -- From 9/11 to Abbottabad."

(CNN)The attack Friday at the Radisson Blu in Mali shows that terrorists are particularly interested in striking targets with prominent American brand names that cater to Westerners.

Hotels are in the hospitality business and can't turn themselves into fortresses, while hotels that house Westerners are, of course, prime targets for ISIS as well as for al Qaeda and its affiliates. These two factors make hotels a particularly attractive target for jihadist terrorists.
The scourge of these attacks on American brand-name hotels and hotels catering to Westerners in the Muslim world is, unfortunately, likely to continue because of the relative ease of access to many of these hotels that terrorists can achieve. The symbolism for jihadist terrorists is high given the fact that they can potentially kill Westerners and, as is the case with Friday's attack at the Radisson Blu in Mali, they also are attacking a major international hotel company with an American brand name.
    In 2003, suicide attackers bombed the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 12 and they attacked it again six years later, while simultaneously attacking the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Indonesian capital, killing seven. Similarly, a Marriott was bombed in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008, resulting in the deaths of 54 people.
    In 2002, a group of a dozen French defense contractors were killed as they left a Sheraton hotel in Karachi, Pakistan, which was heavily damaged. In October 2004 in Taba in Sinai, Egypt, jihadists attacked a Hilton Hotel, killing 31.
    In Amman, Jordan, in November 2005, al Qaeda in Iraq attacked three hotels with well-known American names -- the Grand Hyatt, Radisson and Days Inn -- and 60 people died.
    Beyond American brand-name hotels, hotels that cater to Westerners have also been a perennial target for jihadists: the Taj and Oberoi hotels during the attacks in Mumbai, India, in 2008 in which 166 were killed in locations across the city; the Serena in Kabul, Afghanistan, the same year; and the Pearl Continental in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 2009.
    On January 27, 2015, ISIS gunmen attacked the upscale Corinthia Hotel in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, killing 10. Five victims were foreigners; one was an American.
    Hotels that are in countries where jihadist terrorists may strike can do a number of things to prevent the kind of attacks we saw Friday in Mali.
    First, they must have effective armed security guards who can fight off terrorists.
    Second, they must install airport-type metal detectors for all guests and also screen hotel workers carefully.
    Third, as new hotels are built, hotel companies should consider the extent to which they might be targeted not only by terrorists wielding automatic weapons, but also by car and truck bombs.
    If that is a real concern, hotels should be built well-back from the street and should also create a perimeter around them where all cars going into the hotel vicinity are checked by bomb sniffing dogs and guards using bomb detection devices. Without these measures, hotels that service guest in countries where jihadist groups have a real presence, as is the case in Mali, may simply go out of business because hotel patrons need assurances that they will be safe.