Friday, January 9, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo Attack – A Foreshadowing of a U.S. Nightmare

At the risk of overstating causation, I have come to believe that the Jungian notion of collective unconsciousness operates like an unseen force in the world of terrorism.  This seems especially true in the context of modern, loosely affiliated terror groups.  While top-down organizational planning occurs in some cases, it is striking how many incidents are characterized as “lone wolf” exploits.  Despite this characterization, we know that these actors do not act alone in a broader sense.  Putting aside self-identification with a radical ideology, they also exhibit discernible patterns of approach and action.  Their tactics are drawn from a well of depravity over time and place, and show signs of adaptive continuity.  And, this brings me to my point.  I see a confluence of terror actions that reflect a shared vector of thinking which ought to raise alarms.  I am very worried that it is only a matter of time before a US school undergoes a commando style terrorist attack.  There are too many behavioral signals that lead in this direction.

The Paris terror attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine comes on the heels of the Pakistan school massacre where Taliban terrorists indiscriminately attacked a school and left 153 dead.  In the Pakistan school attack, a relatively few attackers were able to inflict massive casualties through a coordinated military style attack on a “soft” target.  The Charlie Hebdo attack was also a small coordinated action against a soft civilian target. But, the Paris attack also bears a similarity to the Boston Marathon bombings.  In each case, the perpetrators are disaffected immigrant bothers. Whether the Tsarnaev brothers influenced the suspected brothers in the Paris attack is not known, yet it bears a signature.

Following this Gestalt, the United States suffered the worst school shooting in history at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut in December 2012.  While not undertaken by a “terrorist” in the classical sense, the event was a proof point that very large casualties can be achieved by one actor, and schools are generally defenseless.  It also inflicted vast damage to the US national psyche.  Simply put, attack schools and you attack the very heart and soul of America.  Whether Adam Lanza inspired the Pakistan Taliban would be pure speculation, but again there is a signature of evil bearing a resemblance.  While the Taliban have routinely attacked small girls’ schools in Afghanistan under the pretense of religious offense, the Pakistan school attack had an entirely different tone. It was undertaken purely to exact great retribution and strike massive fear in the Pakistani population.  Framed differently, Sandy Hook showed feasibility and effect. A terror mind could not help but be influenced by the reality of its devastating effect.
The Paris attack has a linger to the Mumbai terror attacks in November of 2008 which resulted in 164 dead and over 300 wounded.  Mumbai was a tactical and behavioral departure point.  It showed that commando style attacks by a small coordinated group could exact large casualties on soft civilian targets.  While bombs were used, the use of automatic weapons was prominent.  The “success” of this style of attack again left its mark on the master psyche of terrorists.  The Charlie Hebdo attack just reinforced this notion. 

Going back even further though, it is possible to follow this deadly lineage and extract some lessons.  In 1998, the United States embassy bombings occurred which killed hundreds of people in simultaneous truck bomb explosions in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi. The date of the bombings marked the eighth anniversary of the arrival of American forces in Saudi Arabia.  These bombings succeeded the Khobar Tower bombing in 1996, which was an attack on a US airman residential complex.  These attacks, while striking an arguably governmental targets, were nonetheless soft targets.  In the Khobar case, a petroleum truck bomb was detonated sheering off half of the building and killed 19 airmen in Saudi Arabia.   A year earlier, in 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building with a truck bomb filled with fertilizer, collapsing half of the building and killing 168 people and injuring over 600 others.  The Oklahoma City attack was preceded by the first Twin Towers attack in 1993 when a truck bomb was driven into the belowground garage and detonated.  Even further back in time, we find the 1983 Marine Barracks attack in Beirut, which killed 229 servicemen with two truck bombs.  The Khobar attack a decade is eerily similar to it.  It is difficult to avoid the parallelism and conspiracy in thought that propels the next act of barbarity.
As far as the recent Paris attack is concerned, the perpetrators appear to have some connection with Syria.  As thousands easily move through Europe to fight with ISIS, these radicalized fighters will return as better trained, battle hardened zealots in Europe.  We can see the risks and challenges that European nations will continue to face.  But, the United States is hardly better off.  Without entering into the debate over semiautomatic weapons, the fact is powerful weapons are readily accessible and the United States’ porous borders affords small groups of terrorists relatively easy entry to the country. To assume we will remain insulated from motivated radical terrorists is a deadly mistake.  The means, proven feasibility, massive psychological terror factor and intent are all present.  The chance of commando style attach on a school by a few individuals is a real threat, as is a truck bomb attack.  While obtaining large quantities of explosive materials is difficult, hijacking or stealing a fuel tanker is not.  Driving a tanker into a school facility and detonating is a real possibility given past exploits.  Finally, using the two tactics in combination is also a possibility, given that have used similar tactics in Afghanistan and Iraq on police and army compounds.

In speaking with one law enforcement person about school safety, he indicated that most schools are not worried about active shooters, and are dealing with more practical day to day security problems.  While I can appreciate this pragmatism, there is an overarching pattern of potentiality borne out of past conduct that we ought to recognize.  I greatly fear that a terror attack on an U.S. school by militants is only a matter of time, and the effects will rock this Nation to its core.  I hope and pray that I am wrong. 
Yet, we need to heed the clarion call and continue to make changes in our security posture.  First, schools buildings need to be shielded from a truck assault.  Any large truck, like a tanker or trailer truck, needs to be routed and controlled outside a blast zone until it is verified.  Regional areas should have quick reaction counterterror swat teams that are equipped to respond and defeat well equipped and military trained terrorists.  Schools and law enforcement agencies need to have real time collaboration capabilities for situational awareness and ground truth for tactical advantage. Being able to communicate with school personnel and see inside schools is essential.  Glass windows and doors need to be upgraded to be more breach proof to delay an assault.  Reinforced safe areas should be created in schools.  More one-way exits should be installed to enable personnel and students to evacuate without going through bottleneck points and feeder spaces that create kill zones.  While many of these suggestions may seem over the top, a terrorist attack is by its nature dealing with the unthinkable.  The cost of hardening our schools is a small price to pay if it can save the lives of several hundred or more innocent children – namely ours.

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