Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of reports on the terrorist attack cycle.
Terrorist attacks often require meticulous planning and preparation. As we have said, this process takes place in a six-stage attack cycle: target selection, planning, deployment, the attack, escape and exploitation. After a target is selected and surveilled, operational planning for the attack begins. When the planning stage is complete, the terrorists deploy for the actual attack — the point of no return. In the deployment stage, the attackers will leave their safe houses, collect any weapons, assemble any improvised explosive devices being used, form into teams and move to the location of the target. If counterterrorism and law enforcement personnel have not stopped them by this point, the terrorists will press home their attack. Once terrorists have deployed for the attack, the cycle is beyond stopping. In order to prevent an attack, in other words, counterterrorism personnel must interdict the plot before it reaches the deployment phase.
Even if part of the cell carrying out the attack has been interdicted, the remaining members will still go on with their plan. In fact, they may be unaware that their colleagues have been apprehended. This was the case in the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in December 2004. The attack was planned with two attacking elements, but Saudi intelligence and anti-terrorism forces disrupted the larger of the two in advance of the operation, leaving only the smaller element — which still attacked the consulate. The second group quite possibly had no idea that the first one had been interdicted, and expected it to take part in the attack as planned. In some cases, the selected target will still be attacked even if a previous attempt has failed. The October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor, Yemen, went forward despite the failure of a previous attempt against USS The Sullivans in the same harbor.
The strike against The Sullivans failed when the attacking boat sunk under its own weight, but the tactic was successfully used 10 months later against the USS Cole. Counterterrorism and intelligence agencies sometimes mistakenly assume that terrorists will refrain from attacking a target that has been attacked once before. As a result, intelligence collection, vigilance and security around that target may be decreased. This can have tragic consequences — as demonstrated by the repeated attacks on the World Trade Center and tourist resorts on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. Incorrectly identifying the attacking element of a terrorist cell is another mistake.
This happened in the November 2004 assassination of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by Mohammed Bouyeri, a Dutchman of Moroccan descent. Bouyeri had been under surveillance by Dutch authorities for his connection to the Hofstad Network, a group of individuals with jihadist sympathies in Holland. However, in the course of their surveillance, the Dutch investigators did not consider Bouyeri to be a threat; rather, they assumed that his role in the network was a logistical rather than an operational one, and shifted their attention to other suspects. Once the attack stage begins, the only way to mitigate the level of death and/or destruction is for the intended victims to put in motion their pre-planned countermeasures.
During the planning phase, terrorists seek to achieve tactical surprise — they have control over the time, place and method of attack. If the target is surprised and freezes like a deer in the headlights, the consequences will be dire. It is critical that the target realizes it is being attacked (this is called attack recognition) and takes immediate action to flee the attack zone. Once the attack goes operational, for the most part it will be successful — and only effective protective security countermeasures can mitigate the blast effect or reduce the body count. More established groups, such as al Qaeda, factor in all visible security measures as part of their overall tactical plans, thus negating that factor as a means of protection. This can increase the number of casualties. Only by conducting drills, establishing safe havens, and practicing emergency action plans can those who occupy targeted locations have a chance of surviving an attack.