Are U.S.-Owned Hotels Terror Targets?

Marriott attack raises questions about where U.S. tourists are safest.

July 17, 2009, 3:10 PM

July 17,2009—, 2009 -- In the wake of today's deadly terror attacks on two luxury hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, security experts are divided about whether U.S. travelers are safest staying at American-owned hotels when travelling in places at risk for attack.

The coordinated bombings at the Marriott hotel and the connected Ritz-Carlton hotel, in which nine people were killed and 50 others wounded, were carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, a local terror network affiliated with al Qaeda.

Luxury hotels in developing countries generally offer travelers more security, experts said, but are also often the targets of Islamic terrorists.

Choosing the right hotel, experts agreed, could be a matter of life or death.

Marriott International owns both the JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton in Jakarta. The JW Marriott was attacked once previously in 2003, when Islamic extremists exploded a car bomb outside the hotel, killing 12 people.

In the six years since that bombing, seven other hotels have been targeted by terrorists. Most of those hotels were not owned by American or Western companies, but nevertheless were frequented large numbers of Westerners, including U.S. citizens.

The last American-owned hotel to be bombed was in September 2003, when the Marriott in Islamabad, Pakistan, a favorite of foreign diplomats and well-heeled locals, was attacked, killing 53 people and wounding more than 260. Marriott operates more than 2,800 hotels worldwide.

(Click here for a timeline of deadly hotel attacks)

For some experts, staying at hotels with the means to provide the best security -- like a luxury Marriott -- is always the best bet.

"We're pretty resolute in our recommendation that people not go off brand," said Bruce McIndoe, CEO of IJet Intelligence Risk, a security company that monitors hotel safety. "Established brands offer so much more relative to safety and security. The chance of a terrorist attack remains incredibly small, something like 1 in 10 million.

"It is always best to stick with good brand that has invested in infrastructure that have security," he said.

McIndoe compared the risk of a terror attack at a brand-name hotel to that of a plane disaster with an established commercial carrier.

"Dying at a hotel as a result of terrorist attack is no more likely than dying in a commercial airline crash," he said. "Just because Continental had a recent crash does not mean that its planes are more likely to crash in the future."

Terror attacks in the past seven or eight years have more frequently targeted non-Western and non-American owned hotels, said Alan Orlob, vice-president of corporate security for Marriott on the phone from Jakarta.

"I'm not certain that it is only Western-branded hotels that are being targeted," said Orlob. "The hotels are likely being targeted not for who owns them, but for who is staying there."

Orlob pointed to recent attacks in Mumbai, India; Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt; and Kabul, Afghanistan as examples of bombings at hotels not owned by Western companies.

Orlob said the relatively small number of casualties in today's attacks was a testament to the hotel's tight security.

"This was not a crime of convenience," said Orlob. "The security at the hotel is very robust. None of the other hotels in the city have security close to what we had at these hotels. It is almost impossible to drive a truck loaded with explosives into this hotel. We inspect every vehicle coming into the hotel and we have sturdy barriers that stop vehicles."

Authorities believe the bombers were paying guests at the hotels for two days as they brought in explosive materials and built their weapons.

Some experts, however, believe that American-owned hotels are intentionally targeted by Islamic terrorists, because they are symbols of American commerce and reach.

"Under the circumstances, it is better not to stay at a hotel with an iconic name clearly identified with the United States," said Jack Cloonan, an ABC News consultant and former FBI agent who has also consulted Marriott.

"If I was travelling to Indonesia or Pakistan, or other parts of the world with an al Qaeda presence, I would avoid American-owned hotels," he said. "I'd recommend avoiding the marquee names."

The U.S. Department of State has never issued a travel warning about a specific hotel or American-owned business overseas, but frequently advises Americans to avoid hotels in cities they believe are at risk of attack.

"We've never come out specifically about avoiding specific hotels or locations," said a State Department official not authorized to speak for attribution.

The official would not comment on whether he believed American-owned hotels, like the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, were targeted because of their association to the United States.

"It is hard to know exactly what motivated these terrorists. We know from past events that terrorists like to target us whenever they have the opportunity," he said.

Though security experts Cloonan and McIndoe disagreed on where you should to stay, they agreed that travelers should do their due diligence and pick hotels with tight security.

Cloonan said travelers should look for hotels with large perimeters, multiple checkpoints and vehicle barriers.

He also recommended staying on the first 10 floors of a building and looking for hotels with shatter-proof glass.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events