On several occasions, I have noted the differences in the training required for fighting on an insurgent battlefield versus the training required to conduct terrorist operations in a hostile environment far away from the organization. Most recently, I mentioned them in a conversation I had with my colleague Paul Floyd. In that video, I remarked that most of the militants traveling to fight in the battlefields of places like Syria and Iraq receive training that is very similar to what Paul and I received in U.S. Army basic training. These jihadist recruits are given physical fitness training and are taught to use small arms like AK-47s, hand grenades and basic anti-tank weapons such as the RPG-7. They also receive some training in small unit tactics and then receive additional on-the-job training as they fight on the battlefield.
However, by and large, these types of basic military skills are not very useful to someone who has been tasked with traveling to a distant country to conduct a terrorist attack. Even the highly advanced light infantry skills Paul developed as a U.S. Army Ranger would not in and of themselves equip him to function as a terrorist operative in a hostile environment. This is because, in many ways, the skillset required to be a successful terrorist operative — what we refer to as terrorist tradecraft — is really more akin to that of a clandestine intelligence officer than that of a soldier. It is no coincidence that during the Cold War, Marxist terrorist operatives were trained by agencies such as the KGB and the East German Stasi rather than the Soviet Army or the East German National People's Army.
Let's examine some of the specific tradecraft skills required to be a successful transnational terrorist operative and note how they are different from the skills required to be a guerrilla fighter on a battlefield.
Terrorist Tradecraft Elements
"Tradecraft" is an espionage term that refers to techniques and procedures used in the field during an operation, but the term also implies that effectively practicing these techniques and procedures requires a bit of finesse. This is because tradecraft skills tend to be as much art as they are science. As with any other art, one can be taught the fundamental mechanics of the techniques, but it takes time and practice to hone the skills required to become an effective terrorist operative.
One of the first challenges a transnational terrorist operative faces is traveling to the targeted country without being detected. In past decades, this travel was often facilitated by state sponsors who were able to provide genuine travel documents or excellent-quality counterfeits. For example, genuine Yugoslavian passports for alias identities were widely used by Marxist terrorist operatives during the 1970s and 1980s, and the Stasi and KGB also provided high-quality counterfeit documents.
Al Qaeda's state sponsors — Hassan al-Turabi in Sudan and the Taliban in Afghanistan — did not have advanced document procurement or counterfeiting capabilities, and Sudanese and Afghan passports were quite limited in their utility. Because of this, travel has presented a vexing problem for jihadist terrorist operations directed against the West since their beginning. Indeed, using a poorly altered Swedish passport caused bombmaker Ahmed Ajaj to be arrested when he attempted to enter the United States through New York's JFK airport in September 1992. Because of the bombmaking manuals and other items in his possession at the time of his detention, his arrest could have doomed the World Trade Center bombing plot and led to the arrest of his co-traveler, bombmaker Abdel Basit Mahmoud Abel Karim. It was only due to critical errors by U.S. government investigators that he was permitted to enter the United States on an Iraqi passport using the alias Ramzi Yousef and build his bomb. Amateurish document fraud mistakes also very nearly derailed the 9/11 attacks.
Post-9/11 changes to visa issuance and asylum procedures have presented additional challenges to jihadists seeking to send terrorist operatives to the United States and Europe. It is one of the reasons jihadist groups have used people with authentic travel documents to attempt attacks from overseas, like would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid and failed underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. This challenge is multiplied when several individuals travel together, a likely explanation for why Reid and Abdulmutallab were dispatched as individual one-off attacks and not as part of a wave of similar attacks like Abel Karim and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had envisioned for Operation Bojinka.
Once terrorist operatives are able to travel to the targeted country, they must then conduct their operations in a clandestine manner that will not attract the attention of authorities. If the operation is going to be a major one that requires the operatives to spend time in the targeted country and acquire resources, vehicles and safe houses, the operative must have some way of receiving money to pay for these operational expenses. Such costs are obviously increased if the operation requires a team of individuals. Furthermore, communications between the operative(s) and the group's leadership must be conducted in a secure manner, as must the communication between members of the cell in a multiple man operation.
Once the terrorist operative or attack cell is situated and desires to begin operations connected to the attack, the operative or cell must then perform the various steps of the terrorist attack cycle without drawing the attention of the authorities. This means that the surveillance they will be required to conduct during the target selection and planning phases of the attack cycle must be executed without detection. As we have previously noted, this surveillance phase poses a significant vulnerability to terrorist planners.
To an outside observer, surveillance may appear to be a very simple task, but it is actually very difficult to conduct thorough surveillance without being detected. It requires extensive training and practice, yet most individuals involved in terrorist planning simply do not devote the time necessary to master the art of surveillance. Because of this, they display terrible technique, use sloppy procedures and generally lack finesse in conducting surveillance.
Acquiring weapons clandestinely is another difficult task of the terrorist attack cycle. Many plots have been disrupted when planners attempted to obtain weapons, explosives or the components required to make explosive devices. While people residing in a community may know where to go and who to talk to in order to obtain weapons illegally, it is a big challenge for an outsider to do so with very little local knowledge and few contacts. Developing the contacts needed to obtain weapons or chemicals without being detected takes considerable tact and discernment or a fairly sophisticated local network.
But even if the plotter is able to obtain the chemicals required to construct explosives, building an improvised explosive device in a war zone is much different than doing so in a clandestine manner while operating in a hostile environment.
First of all, in a combat zone, insurgent bomb makers often have ready access to large quantities of military-grade high explosives. These explosives are captured on the battlefield, provided by friendly governments or even recovered from unexploded ordnance. Quite often bomb makers will chain together rocket warheads, artillery shells or mortar rounds as the main charge for their device. They are also frequently able to use military grade or commercial detonators, time fuse, detonation cord and activation devices to construct the firing chains for their bombs.
Such purpose-made explosive components are normally inaccessible to terrorist bombmakers, who are frequently forced to fabricate many if not most of the components for improvised explosive devices — things including detonators, timers and improvised explosive mixtures such as triacetone triperoxide. In the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, even though bombmaker Abel Karim used a chemical engineer named Nidal Ayyad to order the precursor chemicals he needed to construct that device, he still had to manufacture lead azide for his detonators and nitroglycerin for his booster charges from scratch, as well as mix the urea fertilizer and nitric acid required for the urea nitrate main charge. In another example, Japanese Red Army bombmaker Yu Kikumura traveled throughout a significant portion of the United States as he patiently acquired the components needed to construct the fire extinguisher bombs found in his possession at the time of his arrest in New Jersey in 1988.
The Exceptional Individual
When we examine all of the tradecraft elements required to conduct a spectacular terrorist attack — such as the ability to travel internationally, to operate in a clandestine manner, to conduct surveillance without detection, and to acquire weapons and build bombs — it becomes readily obvious how they are different from the skills taught in basic military training. These skills cannot be picked up merely from reading articles on the Internet; they are arts that require practice.
It also becomes easy to see that it is a very rare individual who possesses these capabilities. Past examples of successful transnational terrorist operatives — including Ilich Ramirez Sanchez (also known as Carlos the Jakal), Ali Hassan Salameh, Yu Kikumura, Abu Ibrahim and jihadists like Abel Karim and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed — have been sophisticated, well-educated individuals who were comfortable traveling internationally and mingling with other educated people. Ramirez Sanchez, Salameh, Kikumura and Ibrahim received sophisticated training in terrorist tradecraft from intelligence agencies in camps in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Abel Karim and Sheikh Mohammed received terrorist tradecraft training in al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
Although all of the various regional jihadist groups have their own training camps where they teach basic military training, most of these groups — including al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State — have not demonstrated that they possess operatives with the type of sophisticated terrorist tradecraft we are discussing. Therefore it is not clear that they can teach those skills to others. These groups have shown the ability to conduct terrorist attacks and insurgent operations in their core areas of operation, but they have struggled to project that capability outside of those areas. Even al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which has attempted several transnational attacks, has done so by dispatching operatives equipped with suicide devices from its core area rather than sending operatives to the target country to plan and execute an attack there.
With the number of educated foreign operatives traveling to join jihadist organizations in places like Syria and Yemen, there are very likely some sophisticated and well-educated people in the mix who have the capability to travel to the West. What remains to be seen is if these organizations have the capability to equip their operatives with the tradecraft skills required to conduct complex, major terrorist attacks.