Alessandro Boncio, OR9 Italian Carabinieri Corps, Counter Terrorism Analyst & Lecturer
The recent trend of terrorist attacks highlighted once more the departure from past jihadist strategies, when jihadi leaders selected targets primarily for their symbolic value. Terrorists nowadays prefer easier, softer targets that are operationally feasible and allow even unskilled perpetrators to have higher rates of success. Analyzing the logic behind the target choices at the strategic and individual (tactical) levels helps to verify compliance between the leadership directives and the attacks carried out by cadres. The second goal of this paper is to highlight the rational analysis behind the individual choices. It is separated from rhetoric and propaganda in order to understand the reasoning and build knowledge of pre-attack behaviors, with the aim of increasing the opportunities to counter and possibly anticipate the threat.
The links between terrorist group leaders and their affiliates and sympathizers have been loosened since the al-Qaeda “terror devolution” phase was advocated in the last decade by radical ideologue Abu Mus’ab al-Suri.
In 2004, al-Suri’s simple criteria for target selection were set out: “where it hurts the enemy and costs him the most” and “where it awakens Muslims and revives the spirit of jihad and resistance”
Nowadays, individual jihadists need not rely on a rigid chain of command, as they often did in the past. Inspired by the ideology of al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State (ISIS), also known as Daesh, they can carry out attacks independently, choosing the target, the location, and the moment, inevitably mixing personal grievances with the general ideology provided by the jihadi propaganda machine.
In this way, the evolution of the jihadist movement has followed al-Suri’s principles and given birth to the “homegrown terrorism” experienced by Western countries, with varying degrees of terrorist group involvement and support.
Recently there has been another shift towards notably crude and unsophisticated attacks carried out by individuals inspired by the jihadist movement through its propaganda machine. The driver of this development is undoubtedly the birth and extraordinary expansion of ISIS and its loose connections with like-minded characters worldwide. Its ideology feeds marginalized and bitter individuals, giving them a common enemy to fight, a sense of social and religious belonging, and the means to be recognized as part of a worldwide phenomenon. They rise to prominence and, from their perspective, attain the prized status of shuhada (martyrdom).
In this context, is it still possible to consider this latest series of terrorist attacks in the stream of the ideological guidelines from ISIS and AQ leaderships? Or should the linkage between perpetrators and jihadist groups be considered severed, apart from being mentioned only to obtain extensive media coverage?
A recent academic study analyzing successful terrorist attacks over the last three years in Europe and in the US highlighted that 66% of them were carried out by individuals who had some sort of connection to ISIS or other jihadist groups but acted independently. By contrast, only 8% of the attacks were carried out by people under direct orders from the leadership of jihadi groups. Once again, these findings underline the role played by jihadist online propaganda in shaping and exploiting individual grievances, thus influencing the decisional pathway to the choice of terrorist targets
The Preferred Targets of Jihadist Groups
Jihadist groups pursue their own strategic agendas and, for that very reason, targets are selected accordingly. Their primary goal is not necessarily maximizing casualties. Rather, they seek to exploit psychological effects and gain mass-media coverage, thereby pressuring governments and influencing their domestic and foreign policies.
As a result, targets chosen by al-Qaeda and Daesh reveal the groups’ underlying ideology and strategic choices. Among the targets featured in their e-magazines are military and law enforcement personnel and installations, transportation means and infrastructures, religious and recreational venues, pedestrian and touristic areas, open markets, journalists and satirical cartoonists. In short, jihadi leaders want to hit Western values and habits, weaken their economies and policies, and take revenge for military interventions abroad.
These general considerations, valid for the whole jihadist spectrum, drastically end when we approach the ideological reasoning and justifications for the terrorist attacks. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri produced theological and tactical justifications for the use of violence against the “far enemy” rather than engaging in local and sectarian conflicts. By contrast, ISIS created a Manichean division of the world. Their “us versus them” mantra shaped Daesh’s primary goal – killing all “apostates”. They justified random and wanton violence against civilians, ethnic and religious groups, and other Muslims.
Attacks of varying sophistication against Western lifestyle targets and public venues, for example in Paris, Orlando, Berlin, and Manchester, have been added to strikes against iconic symbols representing the “corrupt” and “unjust” Western world, such as the World Trade Center, and attacks on people considered involved in the conflict against the Muslim community, such as satirical cartoonists, the armed forces, and religious figures. These assaults terrorize large numbers of citizens, who perceive this threat as “up close and personal”, thus influencing the society in which they live from the basic everyday levels upwards.
Generally speaking, a terrorist organization target of choice for attack should have certain features:
- Better chances for attackers to hide in suburbs and large ethnic communities for the pre-attack preparation phase.
- Possibilities for multiple attacks in the same area. This choice facilitates attacker logistics while complicating the reaction of first responders, who may find a chaotic situation affecting communications, jurisdiction and first aid operations.
- The strong possibility of mass casualties due to important touristic, religious, or other public locations attracting large crowds
- The chance of escaping by using busy roads, underground transportation systems, or simply blending in on foot among innocent civilians.
- Major media coverage afterwards, especially if the attack claims international as well as local victims.
These prerequisites suggest that the majority of such potential targets are in densely populated urban areas. This finding is echoed in the main jihadist e-magazines, where several targets are highlighted, along with the best tactics to carry out a terrorist attack. Publications such as Inspire, Dabiq and Rumiyah are leading examples of jihadist guidelines that, in time, were used by individuals to prepare and carry out attacks.
Individual Jihadist Rationality
One can consider the terrorist strategy as a constant. Namely, instilling fear in civil society through the use or threat of violence, in order to achieve the intended goals. Tactics and attack behaviors are instead variables, adaptable to the evolving temporal dynamics.
Every rational actor analyzes the cost / benefit ratio when faced with alternatives. Jihadists are no exception. Therefore, the evaluation carried out by terrorists before an attack reveals much about their rational approach to adapting their skills and knowledge in the midst of a broader conflict.
A widely shared view is that various factors influence the process of individuals first embracing jihadist ideology and then deciding to carry out terrorist actions. The sequence of events that leads to an attack is usually not a linear process. Instead it is often the result of overlapping stages.
Nonetheless, to understand the mental pathway, breaking down the terrorist attack planning cycle into distinct phases is useful. By nature, a terrorist plan can be roughly divided into the ideational, organizational and operational phases, separately analyzed to highlight terrorist vulnerabilities and moments of exposure.
With the advent of the digital media, however, another phase should be added to the analysis: the exploitation of the attack after it occurs for propaganda and recruitment purposes. In fact, this has become an integral part of the terrorist attack cycle, often with more relevance than the attack itself.
The Ideational Phase
At the ideational stage, the radicalized person decides to take action against perceived enemies when his path towards jihadization is completed. Key factors are assembled with the influence of substantial propaganda and rhetoric, such as a simplistic vision of the world, deep individual and societal dissatisfaction, and acritical thinking. In this phase, the individual comes up with the idea of carrying out a violent attack with the goal of inflicting harm on his enemies and becoming a symbol of the conflict between mu’umin (believers) and kuffars (unbelievers).
Targets are still a nebulous category at this stage, with no focus on a precise location. This is also reflected in language, with vague indications such as “killing unbelievers” or “attacking Rome”, as it is a symbol of Christianity.
The Organizational Phase
Planning a terrorist attack is a significant move beyond mere ideas. It requires the rational selection of a precise target and the collection of all available information to understand the feasibility of the operation. Open sources and social media intelligence (OSINT and SOCMINT) are the preferred means through which terrorists can amass valuable information. Chillingly, some of it is released by unwary individuals through articles, maps, selfies, drone footage, videos, and more..
Jihadists will then begin to search for practical ways to carry out the attack. Internet video analysis, IED instruction manuals, car rental options, and weapons availability will be part of this organizational stage. In addition, advice may be sought from like-minded individuals or directly from al-Qaeda or ISIS operatives through secure communication channels. In this case, guidance received from known jihadi affiliates is the kind of tangential connection to terrorist groups that will support efforts to maximize the media effect after the attack.
Money is also important to purchase explosive precursors, weapons, ammunition, fake documents, or simply to rent an apartment or a vehicle. Opening multiple bank accounts, quitting a job to obtain a liquidation payment, selling vehicles or simply committing petty crimes are all options for quickly collecting cash.
Once the organizational phase is initiated, the subject will probably also adopt more operational security measures – isolating himself, changing telephones and internet accounts frequently, using fake names or documents if they are available, and so on.
The Operational Phase
Finally, when the terrorist reaches the operational phase, he has the capability to carry out the attack and will probably perform dry runs and reconnaissance tours to assess the situation in the field, such as traffic conditions, video surveillance systems, and possible escape routes. The individual focus will be maximized and the attacker will probably record a video statement, pledging allegiance to a terrorist leader and / or organization.
In addition, exposing oneself to a massive dosage of violent extremist material will lower the individual’s inhibitions about the use of violence. Obsessive viewing of videos and pictures of executions, decapitations and sheer violence in general desensitizes the terrorist, dehumanizes the future victims, and reinforces the terrorist’s belief that he is part of a greater battle for virtue and truth
Terrorist attacks against soft targets became attractive to terrorist organizations because of their unsophisticated operational nature, which makes them easy for untrained jihadists.
Moreover, loose connections with a structured jihadist group encourage individuals to pursue their own private jihad, adding personal grievances to general Salafi-jihadist ideology.
The outcome is a target list compiled according to personal motives, technical know-how, criminal experience, paramilitary training levels, and so forth.
Soft targets are generally considered as non-fortified, accessible and crowded locations that are vulnerable and easy to attack by their very nature, thus ensuring higher chances of success and extensive media coverage. Recent patterns in this regard include stabbing attempts in crowded areas and vehicle ramming incidents in pedestrian locations. These attacks are easily carried out even by individuals with no specific training and equipment.
Soft targets, as noted in the previous paragraph, must meet certain rational criteria for the terrorists to be selected, including being attractive locations for visitors with open and spacious venues. Multiple access points, large parking lots in the vicinity, and large crowds are other preferable characteristics that terrorists consider as they seek to maximize the casualties and the chances of escape.
As a consequence, the list of possible soft targets is almost infinite. It includes transportation hubs such as train and subway stations, airports and harbors; shopping centers and open markets; recreational venues such as stadiums, cinemas, concert halls, restaurants, and parks; schools; hospitals; hotels; gyms; places of worship such as churches, synagogues, and mosques; and of course tourist venues.
These areas seldom have passive defense systems and active security protocols to respond to terrorist threats. They lack adequate screening of people and vehicles and are only protected by unarmed security guards who have not been trained for terrorist attacks. These factors play an important role in jihadists’ cost-benefit analysis when targets are chosen.
As noted by several high-ranking officers, law enforcement bodies, the military and private security companies need to organize, train, equip, and deploy personnel for operations in crowded urban areas, where the majority of soft targets are located. There is a sting in the tail here – the presence of stationary army or police patrols in soft target areas is a bid to deter terrorists from attacking these locations, but it exponentially increases the risk that the patrols themselves will become a target of choice, due to their exposure and their obligation to react only if engaged at close range.
Countering the Threat
Indeed, providing better security for iconic national targets and sensitive infrastructure inevitably leads to softer targets elsewhere becoming more vulnerable to attacks in general. This raises a question: is it possible to reduce the threat of a terrorist incident for a multitude of potential soft targets by empowering social terrorism management, involving different actors from the social collective?
Deterrence is surely a primary tool to prevent attacks. Deploying security guards outside and inside a potential target location is the main short-term measure that should be taken. Apart from passive deterrence, their presence can add human intelligence (HUMINT) of value for the police.
Another important tool to mitigate the risk without turning our cities into war zones is the use of aesthetically attractive defensive measures to harden target locations. City designers have already started to plan proactively, inserting trees, reinforced flower vases pinned to the ground, speed bumps, and higher sidewalks into city fabrics.
Technology also plays a huge role in countering the new terrorist trend. In addition to CCTV cameras, facial recognition systems, body scanners and other tools can be used to prevent incidents. A system deployed over ten years ago, for instance, allows police personnel to cut off engine power on vehicles equipped with this technology. The application could become highly useful in countering vehicle ramming attacks if rental companies were required to equip their cars and trucks with this tool.
Police personnel can analyze various observable behaviors jihadists adopt along their path to violent jihadization. Being accustomed to jihadist thinking and behaviors permits them to carry out a thorough threat assessment, linking behaviors to different stages of the development of the terrorist mindset.
Of course, collecting violent jihadist material implies a different risk than purchasing IED precursors or recording a video testament and should be assessed accordingly. Jihadist distal characteristics in fact compel active monitoring (watching), while the presence of proximal threatening behaviors requires active risk management (warning).
People who set out on a path to radicalization usually approach Salafi-jihadist ideology both through digital social networks on the internet and in real life interactions in local communities. High consumption of jihadist narratives encourages these individuals to embrace violent jihad and isolates them from their families and the broader societal context. A dichotomist vision of the world, expressions of contempt for the Western lifestyle, and the adoption of rigid and more rigorous religious practices are observable behaviors usually associated with the development of jihadization.
Obviously, if investigators are to observe such behaviors, the individuals must already be listed as “persons of interest” and thus monitored. The problem here is the mismatch between the huge number of people who arguably should be monitored 24×7 with the limited human resources in law enforcement and intelligence agencies. In this regard, and remembering that every theoretical model has its exceptions, “triaging” the suspects list by assessing the number of radicalization risk indicators shown by each individual can provide viable support for resource allocation decisions.
Moreover, it must be remembered that adopting radical ideas and selecting a target do not necessarily predict involvement in preparations for a terrorist attack. In recognition of this muddled reality, the investigative model should be flexible and cross-reference different behaviors in diverse phases of the terrorist attack cycle .
According to a wide range of researchers and academics, the terrorist threat will not disappear any time soon. In fact, new technologies and societal changes will create new opportunities for jihadists. To counter the threat, we must implement security measures without losing our social balance, focusing on learning from our past and anticipating the future. Being proactive and resilient is the key – the adoption of a counter terrorism strategy implies constant reviews, assessments and adjustments to the environment and developments in knowledge and scenarios.
The transnational jihadist movement always adapts to societal and political dynamics. Currently, it is reassessing itself after the self-proclaimed Islamic State lost territory. Daesh will probably reorganize itself as a clandestine movement, infiltrating and influencing other insurgencies.
Meanwhile the other big jihadist competitor, al-Qaeda and it affiliated groups, profited from the Western focus on ISIS to strengthen its alliances and call new recruits to violent jihad.
Al-Qaeda and Daesh plots and attacks in the West will probably increase due to the jihadist strategy of directing world attention on Western countries, while still exploiting failed states and regional crises.
In this framework, and taking note of terrorist propaganda that highlights easier targets and tactics to carry out attacks, understanding terrorists’ ideological and tactical reasoning will be decisive. Exploring potential terrorist targets through their eyes and minds (so called red teaming) will uncover our vulnerabilities, allowing us to strengthen our security accordingly.
In particular, individual behaviors and indicators cannot be considered as infallible actionable intelligence to uncover and prevent all attacks, but they may well contribute to police and intelligence service efforts to detect and interpret such early signals.
Investing in personnel and infrastructure preparedness and resilience is required. As noted earlier, the mere presence of military and police patrols or security company contractors in the proximity of soft targets could provide a deterrence factor in the short term. But it needs to be developed with specific training, technologies and new defensive designs in order to maximize the ability to spot early signs of hostile activities and be prepared to react.
Moreover, awareness and resilience should be integrated into the private sector and among the population. Terrorists’ primary goal is to change our lives and routines by the threat of violence. To counter this menace, we need to address our citizens about the risks posed by terrorism and be ready to confront the consequences with a balanced and democratic attitude. Crucially, this must be done without feeding the vicious circle of violence, fear, repression, and yet more violence, which is used by terrorists to recruit new cadres and polarize our societies.
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