January 12, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: The New Spectacular Terror Attack

• While the traditional forms of modern terrorism persist at lethally high-levels, as seen in the recent devastating suicide bombings in Yemen, Nigeria, and Lebanon, terrorists have changed the meaning of ‘spectacular’ attacks, with stunning repercussions

• They have done this by concentrating on the reaction to an attack, and manufacturing fluid situations perfect for overreaction and sustained chaos

• Three times in the last four months, lone wolves or small wolf packs of perpetrators have paralyzed major world cities with only a few rifles or a shotgun and with shouted slogans; expect more similarly-styled attacks in 2015

• This creates an urgent need for the thoughtful reshaping of our approach to countering this shifting threat while maintaining the ability to guard against traditional terror network-styled attacks.


Recent unsophisticated attacks by individuals or very small groups of people have achieved what the original core of al-Qaeda (AQ) has failed to achieve for almost a decade: each of these lone wolves or wolf packs conducted a “spectacular”—the term AQ also used to describe a devastating attack along the lines of 9/11, the Madrid train bombing, or the London Tube attacks. The new attackers achieved this by simply changing the definition of “spectacular,” applying it to the reaction instead of the attack itself. The focus has shifted from a high casualty count to a high response count. These attacks involve planning but relatively little skill, and are never judged to be failures, meaning they are ripe for copycats.

How this came about is the result of the merging of several terrorism and geopolitical trend lines over recent years. To be certain, explosives remain the tactic of choice for terrorists in weak-state areas such as Yemen, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, or places that border theses areas, such as northern Lebanon and southern Turkey. But in places with well-established counterterrorism (CT) and law enforcement capabilities, the trend is to avoid plots that involve complicated steps such as mixing, preparing, and transporting explosives in favor of small arms attacks that are extremely difficult to detect or deter and that result in inordinately large responses and reactions.

It is important to understand not only these merging trend lines but also their consequences, as it is essential to countering them.

Trend: In global terrorism, affiliation with established groups and networks now matters less than motivation, justification, and excuse for violence that they provide and provoke.

Consequence: Current CT measures are built around the detection and disruption of established terror networks and well-defined groups with organization charts; the problem now is that these networks are less tangible and more inspirational and ideological; the Paris attackers made various claims of affiliation but displayed the same motivation.

Trend: An increase in ‘wolf pack’ attacks of very small cells of family or friends instead of groups formed for the purposes of terrorism, along with lone wolf attacks.

Consequence: these groups are naturally forming with strong pre-existing ties and bonds, and as such are quite resistant (but not immune) to traditional intelligence collection given the small circle of actors and natural patterns of activity.

Trend: The attacks by these wolf packs are the new “spectaculars” that AQ tried in vain for years to repeat; it is now the impact of an attack and the reaction it provokes that is “spectacular.”

Consequence: There will likely be an accelerated increase of similar attacks in major cities, because these attacks generate wildly disproportionate responses and reactions relative to the attack itself as compared to traditional crimes with similar casualties and tactics.

Trend: A number of persistent, accessible, and highly-visible conflicts (such as in Syria and Iraq) generate large numbers of foreign fighters who travel to participate as well as radicalized sympathizers who don’t need to travel.

Consequence: An unmanageably large number of potentially violent extremists—many of whom might be well-known to security services while others remain off the radar—that hamper governments’ ability to effectively monitor but also deter and disrupt them. (Given the logistics, manpower intensity, and costs of surveillance, even a relatively small number of suspects can quickly tax even well-equipped services if the suspects stay below legal thresholds for detention.)

These trends are in addition to the threats that groups such as AQ and their Yemen affiliate AQAP pose to civil aviation and other traditional targets, to say nothing of groups like Boko Haram that are devastating whole communities with sheer brutality. These groups continue to explore ways to conduct their version of a "spectacular" attack while inspiring individuals and small groups to disrupt civil societies with “spectaculars.” The virus of conflict and violent rhetoric is resulting in a fever of small but tragic attacks. Such attacks will likely increase in number until the underlying infections are treated.


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