July 23, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Targeting the United States Abroad
• The arrest of a man in the United Kingdom for plotting to kill a member of the U.S. military based in Norfolk highlights the threat to U.S. personnel overseas
• Italian authorities arrested two men accused of being in the earliest stages of a planned attack on Ghedi Air Base near Brescia, which houses U.S. Air Force personnel
• While more sophisticated plots—involving multiple attackers and/or explosives—remain a threat, U.S. personnel are increasingly at risk of crude but effective attacks, such as those carried out with a car or a knife
• The overall risk is easy to overstate, yet the seemingly random nature of recent plots makes them difficult to prevent.
The terrorist plots that are most difficult to disrupt are usually the simplest: one or two people attacking quickly and violently against a person or persons in the midst of their daily routine. British officials announced the arrest last week of Junaid Khan, charged with plotting to kill a member of the U.S. military stationed at Norfolk. Much like the gruesome 2013 murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Greenwich, Khan is believed to have wanted to use a car to run down a U.S. airman off base, and then attack him with a knife. Khan, along with his uncle, was also charged with trying to join the so-called Islamic State in Syria. The planned attack was likely inspired by the Islamic State, which has called for small-scale attacks on unsuspecting soft targets.
On July 22, Italian authorities announced the arrest of two men charged with planning an attack against the Ghedi Air Base in Brescia, among other things. The U.S. 704th Munitions Support Squadron is based in Ghedi, though it remains unclear if the Americans were to be specifically targeted. As with the case in Britain, the two men wanted to travel to Syria to join the Islamic State while at the same time they were trying to follow the group’s call to attack wherever and however they could. The two men—one from Tunisia, the other from Pakistan—were apparently only in the inspirational stage of their plot, with no evidence of capability beyond their stated intention. That said, as seen most recently in Chattanooga and over the last several years, the length of time between inspiration and operation is shortening.
With increased focus on the targeting of U.S. military personnel inside the United States, the safety of U.S personnel working overseas—military, diplomatic, and civilian—remains a concern. There is a long history of terrorists targeting American officials and military members overseas, with spikes in attacks nearly every decade dating back to the 1970s. Kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings have occurred in clusters, as various groups peaked in operational tempo. As security forces cracked down on these distinct groups by targeting their traditional organizational framework, the threat would recede into the background.
What makes the current threat situation different is that the individuals or small cells who want to carry out attacks lack that defined organizational framework. As with the Lee Rigby murder, the timing, location, and even the specific target are fluid and nearly spontaneous, with luck and circumstances playing as significant a role in the attack as planning. The Italian authorities benefited from the two suspects openly boasting of their plans on Twitter—a gift to law enforcement, but one that cannot be counted on in every case.
Traditional security measures to address the targeting of U.S. personnel overseas are less effective against these seemingly ad hoc small scale attacks. Personnel are repeatedly told to vary their routes to and from work or home, as well as vary their routines and timing. That barely helps against traditional terrorism, as one cannot live a truly random life, and there are only so many ways to get to work or home. However, this precaution is even less effective when the perpetrator is not so much following or casing a specific target as choosing one and then attacking when the timing seems right. Being aware of one’s surroundings is always important, but there is little situational awareness can do when an individual decides to run over a pedestrian on a busy street.
The threat of small-scale attacks on U.S. personnel overseas—as always, when it comes to issues of terrorism—is easy to overstate in terms of probability. Yet the almost random nature of the threat means it is exceedingly difficult to disrupt. That is the true threat of the Islamic State’s call to terror: since so many people hear the call, there is little way of knowing who will act upon it or when, outside of ‘known wolves’ and those who broadcast their ill intentions on social media.
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