December 18, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: When Terrorists Assault Cities

• Assault-style terror attacks in large cities, while rare, result in large numbers of casualties and are difficult to defend against

• With just one leader and three coordinated teams of three men, attackers in Paris killed 131 people at several locations; AK-47 fire is far more lethal than an explosive vest

• In 2008, ten men attacked four targets in Mumbai, killing 164 people; AK-47s killed the vast majority of the victims

• As persistent conflict zones provide live-fire training for extremists, there will likely be more similar assaults against major cities.


One of the most lethal types of terror attacks is also the hardest to defend against, though perhaps more susceptible to disruption. Acts of terror that involve numerous small teams armed with assault rifles and explosives attacking several locations simultaneously are, thankfully rare, but will likely become more common in the future. Persistent conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and other places provide valuable training grounds for extremists. Training makes a huge difference when it comes to terrorism, as seen most recently in the November 13 Paris attacks that killed 131 and wounded at least 360.

There are usually higher death tolls in assault-style terror attacks because they tend to involve multiple shooters. Yet the number of shooters does not account for the entire increase; training, planning, and direction are also factors. The most infamous terror assault on a city is the November 26-29, 2008 series of attacks in Mumbai, India. Similar to the Paris attack, ten men, split into small teams, attacked four locations in Mumbai, killing 164 and wounding more than 300. The assault lasted three days, and paralyzed parts of a major world city.

The Mumbai attackers, members of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), trained in a military-style camp in Pakistan, practicing small unit assault tactics with rifles and explosives. The Paris attackers most likely trained in Syria; they demonstrated extreme proficiency in small arms tactics, and the majority of deaths came from gunfire. It takes live-fire extremist training to learn not just how to use an AK-47, but how to harden one’s emotions while under stress in order to methodically kill innocent people. Both Mumbai and Paris involved coordination by a single leader, amplifying the lethality of the attacks.

The attacks in Mumbai and Paris were somewhat sophisticated in tactics and planning, but not in weaponry. In these kinds of attacks, it is the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle that proves far more deadly than grenades and suicide vests. During the Paris attacks, three men drove up and down several crowded streets, stopping to shoot into curb-side cafes in which there was no cover and little chance of escape. In the Bataclan Theater attack, three men killed 89 people, mostly with AK-47 fire. A small number of attackers blocked main exits and shot calmly and repeatedly with a large amount of ammunition—a tactic that proved exceedingly deadly in both Paris and Mumbai, and to a lesser extent in the September 2013 attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, that left 67 dead and 178 wounded.

The disturbing reality is that these attacks are nearly impossible to defend against once in motion. Fortunately, these attacks are relatively susceptible to detection and disruption beforehand, given the large number of attackers and moving parts. Traditional counterterrorism intelligence works well against the large networks needed to pull off these attacks, though the Paris attacks demonstrated the weaknesses in the system. Improved intelligence sharing is an obvious remedy for the gaps that allowed the attacks to take place. A more vigilant and resilient civilian population is also one of the best early detection measures.

Both the Mumbai and Paris attackers picked targets designed for maximum body counts: crowded but accessible locations, with no ballistic cover in the confined shooting zones. Even the best security forces cannot respond in time, and simultaneous attacks across a city guarantee overwhelming confusion, pandemonium, and paralysis. Cities cannot be hardened in the fashion of a fort or an embassy. The best cities are designed for ease of movement amid bustling commercial and leisure activities. The Mumbai and Paris attackers used the best qualities of major cities against them, moving quickly from scene to scene with deadly results.


For tailored research and analysis, please contact:


Subscribe to IB