Friday, December 11, 2015

The Shoe Waiting to Drop - Terrorism Trends and Implications for American Security

On the heels of the Paris attacks in November this year, the NY Times published an Op-ed piece “Could Paris Happen Here?”  written by Steven Simon and Daniel Benjamin.  Simon and Benjamin, international affairs scholars and counter terrorism experts from Dartmouth College, posited the assessment that the US need not overly worry about a similar attack.   This turned out to be gravely erroneous, as the San Bernardino attack confirmed.  In their piece, they state that anxiety or worry over a Paris-type attack on US soli was:
"Candlelight vigil in London for the victims of the Peshawar school siege."
by Kashif Haque - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

 “…unwarranted.  In fact, it is a mistake to assume that America’s security from terrorism is comparable to Europe’s. For many reasons, the United States is a significantly safer place. While vigilance remains essential, no one should panic.” 

They confidently go on to make the case that the US is different in four essential ways, ranging from its protected geographic access, the lack of a Euro-jihadist culture within our borders, the lack of access to a weapons pipeline, and superior monitoring and intelligence capabilities.

What Simon and Benjamin and many other experts fail to appreciate is that terrorism is a form of asymmetric warfare.  Traditional factors often used to assess risks in classic state-sponsored conflicts do not apply.  Remarkably, after a large scale attack like Paris, you will hear many media pundits and experts assert that the plot, based on its scale and impact, must have required great sophistication, expertise, planning and outside assistance.  This is simply untrue.   I would argue quite the opposite. 

Terror attacks using conventional high capacity weapons directed at soft civilian targets require very little sophistication or outside assistance.  The more open a society is, the more vulnerable it is to low cost, high impact terror events.  In the case of America, access to sufficiently high capacity semi-automatic weapons is easy, movement is easy, access to public places of mass gathering is easy, and access to materials and secure communications is easy.  Any group of motivated individuals with a few thousand dollars of cash, firearms, smartphones, vehicles, and some hotel reservations can inflict untold civilian casualties with relatively modest planning and coordination.

The 2008 Mumbai terror attacks were in many ways a watershed moment in the evolution of terrorism.  It marked the first adaption of a major commando-style urban assault on a civilian target since the Dubrovka Theater siege in Moscow on October 23, 2002.  Rather than 30 or 40 commandos, Mumbai involved a smaller group of 10 well-armed attackers who were able to inflict massive casualties and generate mayhem by attacking unprepared, publicly accessible civilian targets.  At that time, some experts recognized that Mumbai heralded in a new mode of terror – namely that large-scale urban assaults could be carried out by small teams of well-armed terrorists with devastating consequences. 

In the years that followed, several terror plots were uncovered in Europe and reported as being successfully thwarted.   Around that time, in late 2010, I revisited the significance of Mumbai writing that:
The significance of the Mumbai attacks should not be lost in that it represented a continuing departure from the historically favored terror targets of air and rail transportation, and a move towards commando style coordinated attacks. The Mumbai attacks were immensely “successful” from a terrorist perspective, causing large scale carnage and disruption across a major metropolitan region and “success” breeds emulation.”

In the years since, a series of terrorist attacks across the world have served to provide insight into evolving terror tactics and tendencies.  In particular, I recount the following major attacks, among others:

  • The Muna Hotel attack in Somalia in August 24, 2010 was military commando style attack on a hotel resulting in the death of 31 people
  • Spozhmai Hotel attack in Kabul in April 2012 was an assault and suicide bombing killing 20;
  • The Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 was a planted bombing killing 3 and injuring 264 others.
  • The Westgate Mall Massacre in September 2013, was a commando style attack on a mall resulting in 62 dead, and another 175 injured.
  • The Nigerian School attack and kidnapping of 250 school children by Boko Haram. 
  • Volograd, Russia attacks in December 2013 were multi–site suicide bombing attacks killing 34 and injuring 80.
  •  The Peshawar School Massacre in December, 2014 was a commando style attack on a school resulting in over 400 children and personnel dead. 
  • The Charlie Hebdo terror attack in January 2015 was a commando style attack on a newspaper office building and subsequent kosher supermarket resulting in 17 killed and 22 others injured.
  • The Paris terror attack in November, 2015 was a multi-site, commando style attack on a stadium, theater, restaurant and mall with suicide bombers.
  • The San Bernardino terror attack in December, 2015 was a two-person commando style attack on an office building resulting in 14 killed and 21 injured.
As can be quickly observed, commando-style attacks on soft civilian targets are the current preferred mode of terror attack.  As I previously discussed in an article (Kenya Mall Terror Attack Reinforces a Disturbing Pattern, Sep. 23, 2013), it is my view that modern terror movements and organizations like ISIL, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, Ansar al-Shari'a, al-Shabaab and others are not merely loosely affiliated groups of cells that are disconnected from each other.  They are distributed thinking entities that are self-aware, share a common gestalt, and are highly adaptive.  Emulation, adaptation and iteration in tactics and techniques can be observed over the course of time across among ostensibly distinct, geographically separated organizations.   These changes are notable because as they evolve they are optimizing towards exploitation of minimal security presence, ease of execution, reduced operational complexity, less resource dependencies or need for command and control, and greater terror impact. 
There is no question in my mind that the Pakistan school massacre by Taliban terrorists on December 16, 2014 was inspired, in part, by the Sandy Hook massacre on December 14, 2012, almost exactly two years prior.   Just as what followed with the Boko Haram attack and massacre in Nigeria a month later on January 12, 2015 resulting in 2,000 dead and 350 school children being taken, was no coincidence.  These are convergences of thought facilitated by access to freely available real time news sources and scores of social networking sites.  The biggest mistake made by many terror analysts is the assumption that all of these organizations, large or small, even down to the lone wolf, are not connected to each other by conscious awareness of what others are doing or have done.   Stated simply, they learn from one another, copy one another, inspire one another and obtain tacit ideological approval from one another which propels successive incidents. 

I will repeat my concern again.  The US needs to vastly improve school security.  A commando style attack on a school is a major risk.  School targets house many potential victims, they are not generally secure, and the psychological terror impact of such an attack would be devastating.  The Beslan School siege in 2004 looms like an ever-present shadow over ongoing events.  The Peshawar school massacre and Nigerian school attacks which sent shock waves of horror around the globe, are demonstrable examples that terrorists have learned there is great value in attacking schools.   Recent revelations that the San Bernardino terrorists had access to and information on local schools should serve as notice.   Other targets of concern should be malls, large hotels and theater performance spaces.  We all have a natural desire to be reassured by experts that we should not worry, but as we can see, many so-called experts just get it wrong, and getting it wrong has deadly consequences.  It’s time to get about the business of better protecting against and preparing for the next shoe - which will surely drop. 

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