Stratfor on the Terrorist Attack Cycle
Stratfor's approach to analyzing terrorist attacks begins with the premise that attacks do not just appear in a vacuum. While there are a wide variety of motives behind terrorist attacks, all terrorist actors follow the same five-step attack planning cycle: target selection, planning, deployment, escape and exploitation. Focusing on the attack cycle causes analysts to examine how the attack was conducted rather than just focus on who was responsible for the attack. By focusing on the mechanics of the attack an analyst can then begin to identify vulnerabilities in the attack planning cycle, points throughout the attack cycle where attackers can be detected and attacks thwarted before they can be launched.
One of the other benefits of focusing on the "how," rather than the "who," is that it permits authorities to identify attackers as they are in the process of planning their attacks regardless of their identity. Terrorism is a tactic used by a wide variety of actors not only jihadist but also neo-Nazis, anarchists and others. When looking at the methodology of an attack, actors become vulnerable to detection if they are conducting steps along the terrorism planning cycle, such as conducting pre-operational surveillance or assembling improvised explosive devices.
Looking at how an attack was conducted can also help an analyst determine the capabilities of a specific individual or group, what political actors might be supplying them and assess the capabilities of that terrorist actor in future attacks. An actor who is conducting unsophisticated attacks against soft targets will not be able to rapidly develop the capability to conduct sophisticated attacks against a hardened target without significant practical experience or outside training. Therefore rapid leaps in a terrorist actor's operational capability are firm indicators that the actor has received external training. Conversely, analysts can also draw some firm conclusions from actors that possess the means to conduct large sophisticated attacks but that choose instead to execute smaller limited operations. The actors who engage in terrorism and the states that sponsor terrorism will change as the international environment changes, but terrorism will remain a fact of modern life. Understanding how attacks are carried out provides individuals and companies the ability to take common-sense measures too protect themselves and their employees from attacks.