July 17, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Terror in Tennessee
Yesterday’s attack on two U.S. military facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was likely perpetrated by a lone gunman. Helping him pull the trigger, however, was the ideology of bin Ladinism, embraced by the members and supporters of the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups. This attack bears the now too-familiar features of recent terror trends. On the last day of Ramadan, the month in which the Islamic State repeatedly urged its supporters to kill in the group’s name, Muhammad Youssef Abdelaziz, a 24-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen from Kuwait, reportedly fired multiple gunshots at a military recruiting center before driving to a Naval Operations Support Center, where he killed four Marines and wounded three others. Abdelaziz, who graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2012 with a degree in engineering and who was arrested for drunk driving in April of this year, died during the attack, though it is still unclear how. While federal and local law enforcement officials work to determine affiliation and motivation, the source of inspiration might be less difficult to determine, given the relentless social media messaging by groups like the Islamic State to attack whenever, however, and wherever possible.
The attack differed from recent attacks of 2014-2015 in two key ways, even if the motivation and inspiration do prove to be similar. First: instead of commercial or tourist locales, the gunman targeted military installations. However, he chose ‘soft’ military targets: a recruiting center in a shopping mall and a small operations support office—very different from heavily guarded bases and forts. Such targets are of extreme interest to attackers hoping to be seen striking at the military power of their enemy without the risk of taking on the full force of that military. Al-Qaeda supporters have attacked U.S. military facilities before, including the al-Qaeda-inspired Fort Hood attack in 2009 that killed 13 people and wounded 30 others. Given that the threat of ‘inspired’ terror attacks will likely increase, and certainly be a long-term issue, the security postures of non-hardened military facilities will likely be heightened to some degree.
Second: unlike recent attacks such as those in Sydney and Paris, there was no immediate verifiable association with the Islamic State or its ideology. A hallmark of the ‘new terror spectacular’ is that the attack generates immediate disproportionate publicity and fear with its visual linkage to the Islamic State, usually through a black flag. The Chattanooga attack lacked that immediate association, dramatically changing the public response and reaction. Law enforcement was able to quickly and effectively respond to the active shooter situation, even given the shifting crime scene and the initial shock and confusion. Helping matters was that there was no iconic imagery to dominate the media and create an overwhelming public reaction at all levels. The horror of the attack was not magnified by the imagery and publicity that groups such as the Islamic State crave.
The end of Ramadan, the last day of which also included a suicide car bombing in Saudi Arabia and a truly horrific video of a child beheading an accused spy in Syria, does not bring to an end the threat of attacks like Chattanooga. The toxic half-life of the threat posed by the Islamic State’s viral ideology of violence will be measured in years, regardless of what happens to the group’s physical manifestation in Iraq and Syria. The supporters of the Islamic State might be drawn to symbolic dates and events, but they are not limited by them. The FBI stated that it had arrested 10 people in the lead up to the Fourth of July holiday, in plots associated with the Islamic State. Generic terror warnings are ineffective and perhaps counterproductive, but the threat is real and consistent, requiring ceaseless efforts by local and national agencies to detect and disrupt plots happening at cyber-speed. There will certainly be more attacks, but far less than there would otherwise be.
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