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Sep 30, 2005 | 21:49 GMT

5 mins read

The Terrorist Attack Cycle: Selecting the Target

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of reports on the terrorist attack cycle. Terrorist attacks and criminal operations 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. The cycle begins with selecting a target based on several factors. Terrorist targets rarely are chosen based on military utility, such as disrupting lines of communication or supply, or otherwise limiting an enemy's capacity to operate. On the contrary, terrorists generally choose targets that have symbolic value or that will elicit the greatest media reaction. One way to guarantee the latter is by killing and maiming a large number of people — to generate graphic, provocative images that can be splashed across television screens and the front pages of newspapers. The reason for this need to generate media attention is that terrorists, unlike insurgent groups, are not after military targets. Their target audience is people around the world who "witness" the unfolding events via the media. The Sept. 11 al Qaeda attacks, for example, were designed to send a message to the Western world and the Muslim streets that went far beyond the immediate destruction. Because they usually are lightly armed and equipped compared to modern military units, terrorists usually prefer to avoid attacking "hard targets" — heavily defended or robust targets such as military units or installations. In addition, less-protected targets, such as civilians and civilian infrastructure, will generate a higher number of casualties and generate more media attention. Therefore, soft targets — lightly or undefended civilian targets and important symbols — more often are chosen by terrorists during this stage of the attack cycle. Criminals use similar criteria when choosing their targets, although their operations are often not as complex. Criminals often select their targets based on vulnerability and lack of defenses or protection. Like terrorists, criminals use a rational cost/benefit analysis in selecting their targets, although for mentally imbalanced criminals, such as stalkers, the target selection process rarely follows a rational pattern. Their targets are chosen based in large part on delusion or emotion. All of the Sept. 11 targets selected by al Qaeda were highly symbolic, including the Pentagon. Had al Qaeda really wanted to impact the U.S. ability to conduct military operations, it would have attacked a communications or command and control node. Instead, the attack against the Pentagon did very little to disrupt the U.S. military capabilities on the day of the attack or in the days that followed. In fact, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was able to give a press conference from one part of the building while the affected part still burned. During the target selection phase, terrorists research potential targets. The depth and detail of the research varies with the group and the target selected. In recent years, the Internet has made this stage of the attack cycle much easier. By using any number of search engines, terrorists can obtain pictures, maps, histories and even satellite images of their targets. Activists such as anti-globalization groups or environmental groups are very good at conducting research, known as "electronic scouting," over the Internet. After the information is gathered electronically, the plotters then conduct pre-operational surveillance of targets to determine which are the most vulnerable and desirable. In recent years, embassies and diplomatic missions have been adapting to better deter and defend against terrorist attacks. In some parts of the world, Western embassies are practically fortresses, with thick, bullet-proof glass and concrete barriers to keep potential vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) away. More important, new embassies are constructed farther away from streets to provide them stand-off distance to lessen the impact of VBIEDs. Because embassies have become hard targets, terrorists have turned to attacking hotels, which also are symbols of Western influence in many parts of the world. In many ways, large Western hotel chains have become today's embassies. Lowering their highly visible profile by removing company signs and logos to discourage attacks would be contrary to most business practices, especially abroad. Because they are soft targets, attacks against hotels can be expected to generate a high number of casualties, many of them Western tourists or business people. In November 2002, 15 people were killed when al Qaeda-linked suicide bombers attacked the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel in Kilifi, Kenya. In August 2003, the Jemaah Islamiyah militant group attacked the JW Marriot in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing more than a dozen people and injuring more than 100. In July, four al Qaeda-linked suicide car bombers attacked hotels in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh resort, killing 34 people. The criteria used by terrorists to select their targets should be taken into account when developing anti-terrorism measures. Making a target less attractive — by reducing access to it, increasing security and defense measures, reducing the potential casualty count or by using countersurveillance to interrupt the attack cycle — could encourage terrorists to move on to another target that offers fewer challenges. Anti-terrorism experts who say the key is not to be able to run faster than the bear, just faster than the other person, are right on target.

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