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Protecting U.S. 'soft targets' from terrorist threats

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PHOENIX -

Last month's terrorist attack on a shopping mall in Kenya was a wake up call for security and police agencies everywhere.

And Arizona is no exception -- where there are plenty of so-called soft-targets.

Malls, sporting venues, places of worship, even schools are potential targets because in an open society like ours it is nearly impossible to seal off such places where people normally gather.

But it doesn't mean nothing can be done.

"The United States in general being an open society a lot of our targets are considered soft," says DPS Capt. Steve Harrison.

It went on for days. A Somali off-shoot of Al Qaeda took over an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya.

The bloody standoff killed at least 67 people -- hundreds more wounded or held hostage.

The mall left in ruins after running gun battles between the terrorists and the Kenyan army.

"The Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center is here to protect the citizens and infrastructure of Arizona."

Whether it is a shopping mall in east Africa or MetroCenter in northwest Phoenix, malls are considered "soft" targets by those who plan for the worst.

"We receive about 160 tips a month," says Harrison.

Captain Steve Harrison from the Department of Public Safety met us at the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center, or ACTIC. It's staffed by law enforcement officers from different agencies statewide.

Running down tips on any suspicious activity, and keeping an eye on web cams, traffic cams and satellite images from across the state.

"The counter terrorism center was initially created to combat terrorism. We have since evolved where we consider all crimes and all hazards."

After the Kenyan attacks, Harrison said they took a closer look at malls statewide.

"What we try to do is get as much information about that specific attack and see if there is any implication to Arizona. We reach out to the malls, specifically obviously the attack was at a mall and we've done that in the past as well."

Of course, the details of mall security in Arizona won't be discussed with the media.

But Harrison did say they work closely with area malls to make sure they are doing everything they can to avert a potential attack.

"Over the last several years during the holiday season especially when the malls are especially crowded we like to reach out to the mall community and let them know to be a little more vigilant during those times."

They even rehearse different scenarios should the worst happen here.

"Local law enforcement especially, we do a lot of active shooter training."

And the center counts on the public to keep its eyes and ears open for anything suspicious.

"Arizona has about 15,000 law enforcement officers obviously we can't patrol and be everywhere at once we really rely on the public and the private sector industry to provide us with information hopefully before an attack even occurs."

But don't worry. Captain Harrison says the Arizona Counter Terrorism Center isn't the NSA.

"We don't track anybody's history we don't track people's emails. Quite frankly we don't have the money the personnel or the desire to do it, we are interested in criminal activity."

In the event of a shooting or bombing at a mall, Harrison says you have three options. Run, hide, or fight.

But first be aware of what is happening around you and look for the best way to escape.

Online: http://www.azactic.gov/

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