Bahrain Simulates a Terrorist Attack to Generate a Coordinated Response
To prepare for terrorist threats that target civilian gatherings, security forces in the kingdom of Bahrain conducted an exercise to restore control of Seef Mall and free hostages quickly with the least number of casualties.
A rigorous plan simulated reality on the ground with the arrival of security forces, liberation of hostages and capture of terrorists. About 825 personnel belonging to all Bahraini security forces, including the Bahrain Defense Force, Ministry of Interior and National Guard, took part in the six-hour exercise watched by observers from the United Arab Emirates, the United States, France and Britain.
The choice of the exercise scenario — a popular shopping mall with more than 350 tenants — was deliberate. Terrorist groups disregard innocent lives, as demonstrated by similar attacks in many parts of the world. For example, terrorists belonging to Daesh attacked Sayedat-al-Nagah Church in central Baghdad in 2010 and randomly killed worshippers. They also conducted a media campaign on social networking sites to spread fear and send the message that security forces have lost control of the country. In a bloody copycat attack in Nairobi in 2013, Somali terrorists in al-Shabaab attacked the largest mall in Kenya, murdered innocent people and took hostages.
The Seef Mall exercise started at 2:30 a.m. on December 5, 2017. Observers, including the kingdom’s senior security and military commanders, convened in the mall’s top level to watch the action below. The overall commander was His Royal Highness Brig. Gen. Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, head of the Royal Guard.
The exercise started with a briefing by His Royal Highness Maj. Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa, commander of the Bahrain Royal Guard Special Force. He described the objectives: Free hostages held in the mall, test the speed of Bahraini security forces, evaluate collaboration among police and military units, protect innocent lives and respect human rights.
“Terrorism has become a preoccupation of the whole world, and is of particular concern in the kingdom of Bahrain,” Sheikh Khalid said. “This has compelled us to be at the highest degree of readiness to combat international terrorism and build international partnerships with our allies in the United States, Britain and France to benefit from their experience in combating terrorism and protecting civilian lives. We must also intensify joint training efforts to protect the lives and security of our citizens.”
Sheikh Khalid explained the exercise scenario: A regional state was supporting subversive and terrorist activities by manipulating underage youths and using them to smuggle weapons and explosives into Bahrain. That led to a terrorist group called the al-Ashtar Brigade to use 200 people to attack security forces with Molotov cocktails. Around the same time, counterterrorism units received information about gunfire inside Seef Mall.
The exercise begins
The mall appeared as bustling as usual. The corridors were teeming with people. Women gathered inside a store. Young men strolled near a coffee shop, some pecking at their mobile phones, others conversing with one another. Suddenly, a masked man in black ripped open his backpack, pulled out an automatic rifle and started firing randomly at shoppers. The screams of women, cries of the wounded and the sound of shooting were heard from several directions within the building.
The terrorists acted heinously toward innocent people. They beat the injured, abused women and continued to spray gunfire. The smell of gunpowder filled the air, empty bullet shells covered the floor, and bodies of the dead and injured were strewn on the floors, giving the exercise the eerie appearance of a real crisis.
Five minutes later, police cars approached the mall from several directions. The terrorists opened fire on security personnel who had taken positions near the complex entrances. They called for support from the Ministry of the Interior’s Special Security Force Command (SSFC). A tense five minutes passed inside the complex, a period filled with screams and shouts.
Suddenly, shots were heard from the direction of entrance number 1, and one of the terrorists was killed as the first group of these paramilitary counterterrorism forces marched into the mall. They maintained clockwork discipline as they thoroughly searched the surroundings, weapons at the ready, prepared to eliminate the terrorist threat.
Meanwhile, a second formation of the SSFC arrived from another direction, cleared terrorists from much of the mall’s ground level and joined with their colleagues from the initial unit to advance to the mall’s upper level. Eventually, however, intense fire from the terrorists compelled the unit to call for support from the National Guard of Bahrain.
As they waited for more firepower to arrive — 15 minutes from the start of the terrorist attack — the forces from the Ministry of the Interior swept the part of the mall they occupied, isolating any remaining terrorists, removing weapons and checking for dead and wounded. The force included female officers who issued directions to female victims.
Requesting more support
The National Guard arrived at Seef Mall an hour after the attack started. Those troops secured the site and freed the SSFC to clear the rest of the complex. The paramilitary troops advanced further through the mall until they were frozen in place by a horrible sight: Terrorists were pointing their guns at the heads of two hostages, threatening to kill them if the troops approached any closer.
The standoff was the cue to summon the Royal Guard Special Force. Hostage rescue is among the unit’s specialties.
It executed its mission with a display that dazzled observers. The Soldiers came equipped with state-of-the-art special operations technology, such as night vision goggles, encrypted radio communication and lightweight helmets fitted with high-definition cameras to transmit live pictures to command headquarters.
The special troops of the Royal Guard stormed the position so suddenly that the terrorists had little time to react. In a coordinated raid of high precision, they killed the terrorists and freed the hostages. Bomb-sniffing dogs ensured that the terrorists hadn’t left any explosives behind to threaten the rescue operation.
Many other operations occurred at the same time the compound was secured: completing the screening process, detaining suspects, conducting an investigation, collecting crime scene evidence, and transporting wounded to a field hospital set up on site by the Bahrain Defense Force-Royal Medical Services. Field hospital staff treated wounds and administered IVs before ambulances arrived to transfer serious cases to nearby hospitals.
Security forces transferred suspects and terrorists to a collection point in the mall parking lot to process their arrests and detention.
At 4 a.m., after visiting all the exercise sites and the forces’ sites outside the complex, Brig. Gen. Sheikh Nasser delivered a speech in which he thanked participating forces.
“Thank you for joining us. This exercise was a dream, and we achieved it. You saw the high performance and the high capabilities of our security forces in carrying out their mission. We are honored to be here tonight to witness this important exercise. We have all seen the capabilities of the field commanders and the potential of soldiers and officers in performing their duties.
“These exercises provide valuable opportunities to learn about the forces’ readiness and practice the use of modern tactics in the execution of joint missions between the state security organizations,” he said. “They also send a message of reassurance to our citizens and make our leaders proud of our fighters’ performance. Indeed, His Majesty (may God protect him) encourages and supports these military exercises.”
Unipath met with His Royal Highness Maj. Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad Al Khalifa during the exercise to glean more details about Bahrain’s counterterrorism preparations.
Unipath: The world is witnessing major challenges as terrorist groups target civilians. Please talk to us about the Seef Mall rescue operation and why you chose this scenario.
Sheikh Khalid: Terrorist threats represent the nature of modern nonconventional warfare, which calls for the adoption of counterterrorism tactics by the military. As everyone knows, terrorist attacks on civilian targets are easy to plan and execute, because they are public places that do not maintain lines of defense or stationed troops. This is also because the enemy in this case are militia gangs, small in number and equipped with light weapons, whose objective is to kill the largest number of civilians and instill fear among innocent people. Moreover, the explosives they use are homemade and do not require large budgets, yet are capable of disrupting security in any stable state. There are terrorist attacks every day on residential compounds, towers, schools and places of worship, where security forces face immense difficulties because of the presence of civilians.
As Special Forces, we train for combat in residential areas. We have training sites that contain small one-room and two-room houses, but when we talk about a terrorist attack on a residential compound with more than 100 houses, the challenge will be much greater than what the force has trained for. We must, therefore, think in a much broader sense by devising a realistic scenario. So, we will need larger forces.
We begin with the Ministry of the Interior’s first response force, which will examine the situation and determine if it requires calling in the National Guard’s second response force and, if security commanders find it necessary, getting military assistance. This means that we do not only execute the exercise from a tactical perspective, but also from a legal perspective. In other words, the Ministry of the Interior and its organizations are responsible for the country’s security, and it is up to that ministry to request intervention by the Armed Forces. Our main objective for this exercise is also to test the ability of our security organizations to work together during a crisis without prior coordination. So, if we say we have five forces designated for combating terrorism in Bahrain, these must work together as one team, whether during normal daily drills for sharing experiences and planning or during major exercises like the exercise to regain control of the Seef commercial complex, which will involve joint action by the forces and the command center. So, the goal of this exercise is to be ready for the worst.
Unipath: The world is witnessing several terrorist assaults, whether it was terrorist control of the city of Mosul in Iraq, the Paris attacks, or the lone wolf attacks in the U.S. and Europe. Do you follow these events so that Bahraini special operations forces can learn from them?
Sheikh Khalid: We have established a center for counterterrorism that includes a unit for coordinating between different parts. It also includes a research and development unit that addresses tactics, equipment and armament. The third unit specializes in monitoring terrorist attacks that take place around the world, whether in Europe, the Middle East or the United States. The unit examines the details of an attack and how it is handled, and it also looks for errors and how to avoid them and benefit from those countries’ plans to restore security. This unit closely followed anti-terrorist operations in Iraq and the Iraqi Armed Forces’ plans to liberate cities. I have also followed the terrorist attacks in Paris and countries of the region and have put together a complete assessment for them. We have also studied the terrorist attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi. This is why we decided to conduct an exercise inside the Seef shopping mall, to make sure we avoid the mistakes that occurred in those terrorist attacks.
Unipath: What tasks does the Special Force train for?
Sheikh Khalid: We have made well-known contributions to the Arab coalition’s efforts in Yemen, and we also make daily contributions within the kingdom. Let me talk about the Royal Guard Special Force. It was initially a rapid response regiment designated to be present anywhere His Majesty visited. However, we developed the capabilities and equipment of this force to carry out broader tasks. This is in addition to its main role of protecting His Majesty and government processions. We carry out special tasks and continue to train daily. Our mission is different than that of the rest of the Armed Forces. We focus on tactics for combating terrorism and freeing hostages, in addition to dismantling terrorist cells, drying up sources of funding terrorism and foiling terrorist attacks before they occur.
Unipath: We witnessed the outstanding performance of the Royal Guard Special Force. How pleased are you with this performance, and what are your plans to further develop the force?
Sheikh Khalid: I do not stop at any point, even when I see that my men have reached the highest levels. I have four fighters who received the highest medal in Bahrain, the Medal of Bravery, which is a source of pride for the kingdom. The medal is awarded to a Soldier who performs an honorable action or gives up his life to protect the interests and security of the kingdom. Those men have performed heroically during battles and made Bahrain proud before our brothers in the Arab coalition. But despite reaching a high level of performance and professionalism, we always strive to be better. Especially in the ranks of special forces, when a commander sees that he has reached the highest levels and decides to stop training, his forces will begin to decline. My most important goal is to continue training and remain committed to progress and keeping pace with developed countries. We have field visits and joint exercises, and we ask international experts to visit so we can benefit from their experiences in the development and modernization of tactics and equipment.
Unipath: With which international special forces do you train and what is the importance of training with allies?
Sheikh Khalid: As the kingdom of Bahrain’s Armed Forces, and as forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council, we have many military exercises and many alliances, whether with Gulf countries or Eastern or Western countries. So, we work with many countries, not only in special operations, but also in all types of armed forces. We share experience and have liaison officers with other countries. This works in the interest of increasing our personnel’s military experience but it also increases the experience of our allies, from the perspective of international relations, who learn about the traditions and values of our society. So, the benefit is mutual.
Unipath: As a security and military commander, what are the most important things that you wish to achieve through this exercise?
Sheikh Khalid: We wish to assess the response times and coordination between security organizations and make sure that no violation of human rights is committed by security personnel. We have not heard of preparations by the joint forces taking place before the exercise, because our goal is not a military parade. We were hoping to make this exercise appear as a real emergency to assess the performance of our security apparatus. Our brothers in the Bahrain Defense Force-Royal Medical Services said that they could erect a field hospital in 45 minutes and tried to begin work before the start of exercises, but I refused and said that we want to assess performance and learn from mistakes. We were also keen on working with public prosecutors and asked them for observers to assess the performance of the security forces and for advice on prevention of human rights violations. We have also asked our partners in the United States, Britain and France for help by providing international observers to assess security forces’ performance and offer advice to avoid future mistakes. We look forward to receiving their reports and applying them. I would like to commend the role of our international partners who work with us on developing our military and security capabilities.