Soft Targets Back in Focus
By Scott Stewart
Vice President of Analysis
From time to time, I will sit down to write a series of analyses on a particular topic, such as the fundamentals of terrorism series last February. Other times, unrelated events in different parts of the world are tied together by analytical threads, naturally becoming a series. This is what has happened with the last three weekly security analyses — a common analytical narrative has risen to connect them.
First, we discussed how the Jan. 16 attack against the Tigantourine natural gas facility near Ain Amenas, Algeria, would result in increased security at energy facilities in the region. Second, we discussed foreign interventions in Libya and Syria and how they have regional or even global consequences that can persist for years. Finally, last week we discussed how the robust, layered security at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara served to thwart a suicide bombing.
Together, these topics spotlight the heightened and persistent terrorist threat in North Africa as well as Turkey and the Levant. They also demonstrate that militants in those regions will be able to acquire weapons with ease. But perhaps the most important lesson from them is that as diplomatic missions are withdrawn or downsized and as security is increased at embassies and energy facilities, the threat is going to once again shift toward softer targets.
Obviously, individuals desiring to launch a terrorist attack seek to strike the highest-profile, most symbolic target possible. If it is well known, the target can magnify the terror, especially when the operation grabs the attention of international media. Such extensive exposure not only allows people around the globe to be informed minute by minute about unfolding events, but it also permits them to become secondary, vicarious victims of the unfolding violence. The increased exposure also ensures that the audience affected by the operation becomes far larger than just those in the immediate vicinity of the attack. The attack on the U.S. diplomatic office in Benghazi and the killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens led to months of media coverage that has included televised congressional hearings and fierce partisan and bureaucratic squabbles in the media. It was the terrorist equivalent of winning the lottery.
However, in the wake of terrorist attacks, increased situational awareness and security measures make successful attacks difficult to replicate. Targets become more difficult to attack — what we refer to as hard targets. When this happens, attackers are forced to either escalate the size and force used in their attack, identify a vulnerability they can exploit or risk failure.
In the August 1998 attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, al Qaeda planners turned to the first option: a larger attack. They attempted to use large truck bombs to overcome the embassies' layered security. The embassies had decent perimeter security but lacked enough distance between the street and the buildings to protect them from a large blast. In both attacks, the attackers also tried unsuccessfully to get the bomb-laden trucks through perimeter security vehicle checkpoints to detonate them closer to the embassy buildings.
After those bombings, security enhancements made most diplomatic facilities more difficult to attack, leading militant groups to turn their attention to hotels. A strike on an international hotel in a major city can make almost the same kind of statement against the West as a strike on an embassy. Hotels are often full of Western business travelers, diplomats, intelligence officers and, not insignificantly, members of the media. This has made hotels target-rich environments for militants seeking to kill Westerners and gain international media attention without having to penetrate the extreme security of a hard target like a modern embassy.
But increased security is not the only factor that leads those wishing to conduct a terrorist attack to gravitate toward softer targets. For the better part of a decade, we have chronicled how the global jihadist movement has devolved from an organizational model based on centralized leadership and focused global goals to a more amorphous model based on regional franchises with local goals and strong grassroots support. For the most part, these regional franchises lack the training and funding of the al Qaeda core and are therefore less capable. This means franchise groups are often unable to attack hard targets and tend to focus on softer targets — such as hotels or the U.S. ambassador while he is staying at a poorly protected office in Benghazi rather than at his residence in Tripoli.
Changing Threats in North Africa
As hotels in places like Amman and Jakarta became harder to attack with large vehicle bombs, attackers began to smuggle in smaller devices to bypass the increased security. There was also a trend in which attackers hit restaurants where Westerners congregated rather than the more secure hotels.
The same dynamic will likely apply today in the Sahel. We believe that the attack at the Tigantourine natural gas facility in Algeria was greatly aided by the complacency of the security forces. The attackers did not demonstrate any sort of advanced terrorist tactics or tradecraft. It would be very hard to replicate the attack on another energy facility in the region today due to increases in awareness and security. The increase in security will be compounded by the fact that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its jihadist brethren in the Sahel lack sophisticated terrorist capabilities and have lost their bases in northern Mali. This means they will be hard-pressed to conduct a successful attack against a hard target.
Furthermore, having lost substantial quantities of men and materiel, and with French and African forces potentially interdicting their lucrative smuggling routes, these jihadist groups will be looking to refill their coffers. Kidnapping is a long-standing way for militant groups in the region to resolve precisely these issues. Although they have lost control of the towns they captured in northern Mali, these groups will continue to pose a threat of kidnapping over a wide swath of North Africa.
Turkey and Lebanon
While the jihadist militants in Syria are currently fixated on attacking the Syrian regime, there is nonetheless a non-jihadist threat in Turkey — and perhaps Lebanon — that emanates from the Syrian intelligence and its proxy groups in the region. However, the Feb. 1 attack against the U.S. Embassy in Ankara demonstrated the limitations of the capabilities of one of those proxies, the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front.
Carrying on the operational legacy of its parent organization, Devrimci Sol, the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front aspires to conduct spectacular attacks, but its attacks frequently fizzle or fail. Successfully striking a hardened target such as the U.S. Embassy is beyond the group's capability. In fact, the group frequently botches attacks against softer targets, as in the attack against an American fast food chain outlet in May 2012 that failed when the explosive device malfunctioned.
The Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front's limited tactical capability supports the theory that the attack against the U.S. Embassy in Ankara was commissioned by the Syrian regime. The group has even failed in suicide bombings against Turkish police stations with far less security; it knew it was attacking something beyond its reach. But at the same time, the group's limited capability and the failure of the attack against the U.S. Embassy will likely result in a shift to softer targets if the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front was acting at Syria's behest and the Syrians have asked for additional anti-American attacks.
As noted last week, Devrimci Sol conducted dozens of attacks against U.S. and NATO targets in Turkey during late 1990 and early 1991 at the behest of Saddam Hussein. The majority of these attacks were directed against soft targets such as U.S. corporate offices, nongovernmental organizations, hotels and restaurants. We believe these same targets are in jeopardy of attack by the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front now.
Syria maintains a number of proxy militants in Lebanon, including Hezbollah. Hezbollah has its own calculations and may not be as willing as Syria's smaller proxy groups to act on Syria's behalf. Hezbollah maintains a far more sophisticated militant capability than these small groups and is able to attack hard targets, unlike the smaller groups. Therefore, if the Syrians commission a terrorist attack in Lebanon and Hezbollah does not help them, the attacks their proxy groups will carry out will be quite limited — and will again focus on soft targets.
For the most part, soft targets are soft by their very nature. It is not only impractical to employ embassy-like security at a fast food restaurant, but it is inordinately expensive — too expensive to be economically feasible for a business. Still, there are some simple and practical security measures that can be taken to make them slightly more secure and hopefully cause anyone planning an attack to divert their operation toward an even softer target.
Additionally, individuals living in or traveling to these places can and should practice good situational awareness, review their personal contingency plans and mentally prepare to respond to any crisis.