March 29, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Soft Targets of Terror

• In the past week, three suicide bombings killed more than 140 civilians; 72 in Lahore, Pakistan, 41 near Baghdad, Iraq, and 35 in Brussels, Belgium

• The targets of the attacks—mass transit, a children’s soccer match, and a public park—are designed for open access and enjoyment, and cannot be hardened without fundamentally changing their purpose and utility

• Attacks on soft targets stoke public fear of communal gathering spaces that are meant to enhance social cohesion

• With neither a shortage of people willing to blow themselves up nor a shortage of explosives with which to do so, the trend of mass-casualty attacks against soft targets will continue.


The hardest terror strikes are often against the softest targets. This truism was demonstrated three times in the last week, with suicide bombings against civilians in Brussels on March 22, near Baghdad on March 25, and in Lahore on March 27. The combined casualties from the three attacks are massive: more than 140 people killed and 700 wounded, many grievously. The attacks were unrelated—the so-called Islamic State conducted the attacks in Brussels and near Baghdad; Jamaat ul-Ahrar, a Pakistani Taliban splinter group, conducted the Lahore bombing—but are all emblematic of what has been, and will continue to be, the preferred style of terror attacks: hitting soft targets with high-explosives.

Once a terrorist group has assembled an explosive device, the attack becomes a choice of target and timing. In Iraq, Belgium, and Pakistan, the attackers chose soft targets frequented by civilians, and their timing carefully: an award ceremony, rush hour, and a holiday celebration. The primary purpose of these attacks is to kill and maim as many people as possible; the slaughter of innocents in the most innocuous or idyllic settings eviscerates a society's sense of security. 

There is nothing new about terror strikes against soft targets; what is new is that the baseline threat is now so high in so many countries. Countries such as Pakistan have battled nation-wide terrorism for years, with intermittent success at best, amid an overall strategic loss in countering the rise of violent extremism. Countries like Belgium face fewer pervasive terrorism concerns than Pakistan, but the threat is nevertheless real, and growing.

Unlike symbolic or high-value targets such as government buildings, there is no way to truly harden soft targets. Parks are designed for leisure, and for easy access and movement. Mass transit is designed to move people efficiently. Both would cease to fulfill their designed functions if onerous security measures were implemented. Furthermore, adding security on the perimeter of a soft target simply changes the strike zone. Terrorists are looking for high body counts; a crowd at a checkpoint for a park or a metro is just as attractive as a crowd inside a park or metro. One needs to look no further than Iraq to see how dangerous crowded checkpoints can be for the civilians they are ostensibly designed to protect. 

One of the consequences of mass-casualty attacks such as those in Lahore or Brussels is that all crowded spaces become unsafe. Afraid to gather, people stay home, and society splinters ever so slightly more, eroding the societal resilience that is the best and most lasting counterterrorism measure available. 

The rise of the Islamic State is simply the most high-profile case in what is a global rise in violent extremism. There is no shortage of extremists—usually young males, but increasingly women as well—willing to blow themselves up using widely available explosives and designs for suicide vests or other bombs. The video footage of the three attackers at the Brussels airport shows three seemingly ordinary people among countless other ordinary people. Behavior analysis and suspicious pattern recognition do not provide much assistance in these uncontrolled spaces if the attackers maintain a modicum of calm and normalcy. As long as individuals are willing to die in order to kill scores of innocent people, places of communal gathering—whether mass transit systems or public parks—will continue to be targeted.


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