Terrorists looking to exploit soft targets haven't only sought airports
. Security has increased at government buildings and embassies in the wake of past attacks. Consequently, many groups have abandoned attempts to attack well-defended structures and instead focused their efforts on attacking hotels, cafes and tourist sites. In many places, hotels have increased their security in response. So, terrorists again turn to even more vulnerable targets, such as restaurants. Attacks against nightclubs, restaurants, malls and schools have thus become the new norm.
The switch to soft targets was also motivated in part by the difficulty groups had in getting trained terrorist operatives to the West. Law enforcement greatly improved its monitoring capabilities of travel documents, biometrics and computer databases. It's simply far more difficult for most terrorist operatives to travel today than it was a decade ago. Passports are harder to alter than they were in the pas
t and with travel documents linked to databases, they are even harder to counterfeit – at least for the purpose of crossing borders. It's also far more challenging for terrorists to get visas. Even terrorist suspects from visa waiver countries can still be identified and denied travel thanks to lookout databases.
In the past, transnational terrorist groups such as Black September, the Abu Nidal Organization, Hezbollah and the Japanese Red Army were able to send operatives around the world to conduct attacks. During the early years of al Qaeda, the group was able to send operatives to New York
, Kenya and Tanzania, and of course were able to get 19 operatives into the United States for the 9/11 attacks. But after 2001, professional terrorists no longer could travel as easily without detection. This problem was largely responsible for the jihadist ideologues' decision to begin pursuing the leaderless resistance operational model
, which encourages grassroots jihadists living in the West to conduct simple attacks with any weapon available near where they live. These grassroots operatives often possess far less sophisticated terrorist tradecraft than their professional counterparts. So, they tend to attack soft targets, too, though often with less precision and therefore less success.
Counterterrorism efforts have also forced terrorist groups to change how they communicate. The U.S. government turned the full attention of its military and intelligence assets against al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan. Soon after, al Qaeda leaders found that it was dangerous to use radios, cell phones or satellite phones to communicate. Many al Qaeda leaders hiding in Pakistan were tracked down and captured because of sloppy communication methods. Identifying and tracking al Qaeda communications networks was so successful that it forced Osama bin laden to shun electronic communications devices altogether, relying instead on human couriers as a link to the outside world.
In the places where it was more difficult to capture or arrest terrorist leaders, the United States began to use unmanned aerial vehicles and missiles to not only track but also attack targets. The rise of armed drone strikes again caused terrorists to alter their operations. High value targets had to change how they communicated and traveled. Even rank and file members had to be trained differently: Iraqi forces recently found an underground training facility in their operation to re-capture Mosul, showing just what lengths the Islamic State went to when it came to protecting its fighters from detection and attack.
Funding and Sanctuary
But military, intelligence and law enforcement efforts are not the only tools in the counterterrorism toolbox. Diplomacy and financial levers have also been successfully applied to terrorism. Diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions applied to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's government forced Libya to abandon its direct terrorism operations, its sponsorship of terrorism and its nuclear weapons program. They also surrendered Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi
, a former Libyan intelligence officer tried in the Netherlands under Scottish law and convicted for his role in the Pan-Am 103 bombing. Likewise, diplomatic and economic pressure on Sudan resulted in the country expelling Osama bin Laden and many of his al Qaeda associates back in 1996. Economic sanctions haven't only been placed on al Qaeda and Islamic State financiers; they've also targeted many members of Hezbollah's vast global finance and logistics network, often forcing the organization to alter and hide the way it raises and transfers funds.
In many ways, terrorist financiers have proved to be every bit as creative as bombmakers. But in the end, whether it's planning terrorist attacks or preventing them, it's all very much a game of cat and mouse where wins by either side are often only temporary due to rapidly shifting dynamics.