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What Drives Terrorism Part 3: Counterterrorism Efforts

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READMay 18, 2017 | 08:00 GMT
Islamic State bomb instructions
(Inspire Magazine)
A picture taken from Inspire magazine shows bombmaking components. Potential terrorists are constantly trying to outwit security and counterterrorism forces with new and imaginative techniques.
What drives terrorism? For the past two weeks I've tried to answer this question by looking at the forces that influence trends in terrorism tactics, targets and tradecraft. The first part of the series examined the importance of ideology and terrorist theory in shaping terrorism trends, while the second focused on how political and economic developments influence these dynamics. Of course, factors that drive group behavior are distinct from the psychological and social forces that lead an individual to become radicalized, a topic that has been studied in much more detail. Still, they help put attacks in context and permit observers to see how terrorism evolves so that the changes can be tracked and anticipated.
But an equally important question to ask is, what stops terrorism? What actions do governments and law enforcement take to prevent or mitigate the impact of terrorist attacks? Understanding counterterrorism measures is enlightening for those they protect and equally critical for terrorists looking to circumvent them. In subsequent weeks, the technology behind such efforts and the effect of media coverage on terrorist groups will be discussed. But this week, the series focuses on how counterterrorism techniques actually influence terrorism.


Terrorists and the agencies that oppose them are in an unending competition to outmaneuver one another. For terrorist groups, it's a matter of survival, not only for their operatives but also for their agenda and ideology. For the authorities, it's also a matter of survival: for the people they are sworn to protect and the government or institution they serve. Terrorists attempt to successfully carry out an attack. Law enforcement tries to prevent or mitigate its damage. No matter the weapon, the method, or the means, both sides race to beat the other.
Bombmaking is a prime example. The use of commercial explosives such as dynamite in terrorist bombing operations led many countries to restrict the sale of explosive materials to licensed individuals only. This forced bombmakers to use improvise explosive mixtures, and in some cases rely on stolen commercial explosives or military grade equivalents provided by state sponsors. But as the authorities identified common precursors used in making homemade explosive mixtures, such as ammonium nitrate fertilizer, they took action to control the sale of those chemicals and compounds as well. Steps were taken to render them less effective by reducing the nitrogen content, and to coat them to make them less absorbent. Terrorist bombmakers compensated by crushing the ammonium nitrate prills and adding other fuels such as aluminum powder, or even powdered sugar, among other things.
During the Iraq War from 2003-2010, improvised explosive device attacks and U.S. countermeasures against them were a prominent part of the conflict. Iraqi insurgents observed U.S. operational procedures and designed bomb attacks to take advantage of any vulnerabilities. U.S. forces would change their procedures in turn. The Iraqi insurgents would then adapt to mount a new style of attack just as quickly. A similar progression occurred in Afghanistan
Terrorist attempts to smuggle bombs aboard aircraft experienced similar evolutions. Operatives have constantly adapted their bomb designs to account for changes in the technology used to screen passengers, their personal effects and luggage. In the 1960s, terrorist bombs made for attacking aircraft were quite simple. More recently, as a result of security improvements, bombs have been disguised in items ranging from baby dolls to shoes and underwear to laptop computers. And as recent talk of expanding the ban on large electronic items on flights originating from eight countries in the Middle East to include direct flights from some European countries to the United States suggests, these struggles are far from over.


Just as tactics are forced to adapt to the security measures arrayed against them, terrorists also have to periodically change their targets. Since we're already discussing aviation-related attacks, let's start there. As it's gotten more difficult to smuggle bombs aboard aircraft, terrorist groups are increasingly turning their attention toward attacking passengers on the soft side of the airport, either in the departure or arrival areas. These attacks generate almost as much media attention and terror as an attack on an aircraft. They're also far easier to conduct for groups with less sophisticated bombmaking tradecraft.

As it's gotten more difficult to smuggle bombs aboard aircraft, terrorist groups are increasingly turning their attention toward attacking passengers on the soft side of the airport, either in the departure or arrival areas. These attacks generate almost as much media attention and terror as an attack on an aircraft. They're also far easier to conduct for groups with less sophisticated bombmaking tradecraft.

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 past 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.

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