May 16, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: On the Front Lines of Terror

• On May 15, a suicide bomber killed 25 people at a police recruiting center in southern Yemen, the latest in a worldwide trend of targeting police

• On the same day in Iraq, seven police officers and three security guards were killed in a suicide bombing attack at a gas processing facility in Taji, north of Baghdad

• On May 14, at least three Afghan police officers were killed in a suicide car bombing at a police training center in Helmand Province, just four days after attacks that killed 15 more officers in the country

• Charged with protecting civilians in the midst of conflict and relentless violence, police officers in countries struggling with terrorism pay a high price for their service.

There are few jobs more dangerous than that of police officers in war torn countries like Yemen, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Unlike military counterparts that operate in larger units, police officers man isolated checkpoints and have constant interaction with the populations they are trying to protect. Both the mission and symbolism of police make officers prime targets for any terrorist group, from the Taliban to al-Qaeda to the so-called Islamic State. A population that feels protected and secure can build resilience to extremism. A police officer standing on a street corner provides a symbol of stability and governance, both of which terrorists cannot abide.

In places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, steady employment is as elusive as good governance and stability. A lack of opportunity, coupled with a desire to protect neighbors and communities, makes police recruiting centers a popular place for young men. As a result, such places provide terrorist groups with targets of double value; an attack on a recruitment center kills both those who want to be police officers as well as those capable of training them, and thereby deters others from joining the queue. Robbing a community of its current and future sources of protection is a prime objective for any terrorist group, as is driving a wedge between civilians and the governments unable to protect them. 

On May 15, the Islamic State took credit for a suicide bombing that killed at least 25 people outside of a police recruiting center in the southern Yemeni city of Mukalla—which until recently had been a stronghold of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Such a massive loss of life not only deprives the city of badly needed officers, but it puts understandable hesitation and doubt in the minds of others who may have considered joining the police. It takes either a truly desperate or truly courageous person to return to the recruiting line after such a deadly attack. Yet in some ways, the fate of Yemen depends on those people refusing to get out of line. The only way to effectively combat extremists in Yemen is to protect the Yemeni civilians lining up to fight them. The responsibility of protecting officers and prospective recruits falls to whatever semblance of Yemeni government remains, as well as to the many foreign militaries currently operating in Yemen.

On the same day, suicide bombers in Iraq attacked a gas processing facility in the district of Taji, just north of Baghdad. The attack killed seven police officers and three security guards—who were likely poorly paid, yet still show up for duty at great risk. In 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq conducted a campaign called 'Soldiers' Harvest' aimed at killing security forces from both the military and police. The campaign involved attacking police and soldiers in their homes, assassinating key security officials, and targeted bombings. Again, the purpose was twofold: weakening the security and police allowed the group to continue rebuilding, positioning, and planning in the lead-up to the 2014 offensive; it also undermined any confidence the increasingly terrified public had in a police force and government charged with providing safety and security, yet unable to even protect themselves.

In Afghanistan, the situation for police officers has been equally perilous, and is getting worse. On May 10, the Taliban attacked several checkpoints in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, killing fifteen officers. Four days later, three more police officers were killed in a suicide bombing at a police training academy in the Nad Ali district of Helmand. Since 2001, Afghan police have borne a horrendous toll at the hands of the Taliban; no group has felt the impact of this toll more than the Afghan civilians left unprotected in the resulting chaos.

A fundamental principle of counterinsurgency strategy is the protection of the local population. Achieving that goal requires guaranteeing the protection of the protectors. Yet the vital mission of police officers requires close interaction with the community; the overwhelming scale of violence and conflict that officers face in places like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Iraq puts them at a level of risk that is difficult to effectively negate or minimize. Given the primacy of their mission, more effort will be needed to protect those who have stood up and volunteered to serve and protect.


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